Colorful in every sense, the iconic American cranberry has a fascinating history and an essential place at the Thanksgiving table.
At Thanksgiving, spooning gorgeous, crimson cranberry sauce onto a plate piled high with roasted turkey is as much a part of the meal as sitting down with friends and family. Tart and lively, cranberries bring new dimension and balance to the rich, stodgy holiday food.
As part of a menu that replicates traditional favorites year after year, the cranberry sauce is also a bright spot for creative cooks who like to tinker with recipes. It’s easy to serve one simple version (if it’s from the can, ridges intact, please) and another that features such delicious ingredients as apple cider, orange zest, dried cherries or fresh ginger.
There’s symbolism at work in this recipe, too: After all, cranberries are as American as the holiday itself. While food historians still squabble about whether they were served at the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621, it’s certain that the Pilgrims tasted the berries soon after their arrival.
The cranberry is one of just three fruits native to North America (along with Concord grapes and blueberries), and it played an important role in Native American culture. Mixed with deer meat, it went into a dense survival food called pemmican; it was used as medicine to counteract poison and infection; and it provided rich crimson dye for coloring rugs, blankets and clothing.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Naturally, when tribes along the East Coast introduced the cranberry to European settlers, the newcomers instantly saw something of value. Adapting them to their needs, colonists stewed cranberries to make sauces for wild game and featured them in sweet tarts for dessert. They also discovered the berries’ healthful properties and stored them aboard New England ships as a source of vitamin C to help prevent sailors from getting scurvy.
In 1677, as a gesture of good will—or maybe just to prove that they’d discovered something dramatically superior to the small, poorly flavored European cranberry—the Massachusetts colonists sent 10 barrels of cranberries to King Charles II along with cracked Indian corn and cod.
Today, many of the regions where the berry was first farmed, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, remain large producers. As efficient growing methods have increased output, marketers have found new ways to make the cranberry appeal to consumers. These days, it’s featured in juices, cereals, baked goods and even in salads and salsas.
Packed with antioxidants, the cranberry also has a growing reputation as a health powerhouse, capable of increasing our natural defenses to everything from aging to ulcers. Americans now consume some 400 million pounds of cranberries each year—20 percent during the November holiday. But as you cook up Thanksgiving’s easiest and arguably most important recipe, the cranberry sauce, remember that this deliciously tart berry is worth enjoying all year.
All About Cranberries
Cranberries are certainly a Thanksgiving classic, but in this delicious look at their many uses, it’s plain to see that the beautiful crimson fruit is hardly just for the holidays.
A Saucy Success
The high acidity of cranberries is exceeded only by lemons and limes, and it’s the reason the berry needs to be combined with sweetener to be truly palatable. When the Pilgrims first encountered stewed cranberries as the Native Americans made them, the dish was likely sweetened with cornstalk juice. As they adapted the recipe, they used sugar, maple syrup or molasses.
By the 1800s, cranberry sauce was so well-liked in the United States that one visiting French delegate reported it was sometimes “cramberry” sauce—a reference to the huge portions that were regularly devoured at the table. The canned cranberry sauce we’re familiar with was first invented in the early 1900s when a large producer decided to process his damaged berries into canned puree. Because cranberries are naturally rich in pectin, like apples, they require barely any cooking to thicken into a sauce.
Juicing It Up
Ocean Spray, a familiar brand of cranberry juice, began as a growers’ cooperative of three families in 1930. Its initial offering, a cranberry-juice cocktail, sold only in New England and wasn’t exactly a best-seller.
But everything changed in the 1960s after the company hired an executive officer who bluntly pointed out that the drink, formulated to the taste of cranberry growers—folks who could eat the super-tart berries directly off the vine—needed extra water and sugar.
With the reformulated beverage, business began to turn around, and after finding a way to counteract an enzyme interaction that made apple-cranberry juice a revolting muddy-brown hue, the company introduced that flavor to instant success. (The graduate student who pioneered it wanted to name the juice “Crapple” but, wisely, was overruled.) Cran-raspberry juice soon followed, and today, the drinks are as familiar as orange juice or milk.
Cut and Dried
In 1993, Ocean Spray introduced Craisins, which are dried and sweetened cranberries. Despite outcries from the California raisin lobby, which viewed this name as a ride on its coattails, the Craisin kept its memorable label and remains hugely popular today—for use in baked goods and as a simple, healthy snack that’s delicious in trail mix or in salads.
With the success of its juices and dried fruit, Ocean Spray has grown from its tiny original size to include more than 600 growers; today, seven of 10 cranberries sold in the world come from the company.
Even with modern farming and harvesting techniques, growing cranberries isn’t an easy task. A temperamental crop, the low-lying bush-like vines grown in bogs thrive in warm, humid conditions and respond dramatically to the weather.
This year brought rocky times for some cranberry farmers. New Jersey had an abnormally hot summer, and cranberries were damaged by sun scalding; in the Northwest, a cold, wet spring delayed the crop and reduced berry size, lowering yields by as much as 16 percent in Washington. Nonetheless, the nation’s cranberry crop is on track this year to become the second largest on record—a staggering 7.35 million 100-pound barrels.
Wisconsin, the largest grower, forecasts a yield 10 percent higher than last year’s, and Massachusetts also expected a bumper crop. Since fresh cranberries aren’t easy to find year-round, this month is a great time to stock up. Without pre-washing, cranberries freeze well in their original plastic bag for up to one year.