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Cranberries: A Thanksgiving Favorite

In honor of Thanksgiving I thought we would take a look at one of my favorite parts of the festive meal, cranberries! Yes, I know, my food preferences are weird.

This excerpt is from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, edited by Andrew F. Smith, which I found through our fabulous online portal, Oxford Reference Online.

Cranberries Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon), native to bogs and swamps of the northeastern United States and adjacent parts of Canada, were cultivated by Native Americans long before white settlers arrived. Commercial farming, by management of native stands, began early in the nineteenth century on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The plant enjoys cool summers and requires soils that are very acidic, sandy, moist, and rich in humus. Suitable sites, which have also been developed in Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest, are furnished with dikes and drainage ditches for water management, important for periodically flooding fields for winter cold protection, harvest, and irrigation.

Although more than 150 cultivars exist, the market is dominated by four—Early Black, Howes, Searles, and McFarlin—which were all selected from the wild in the nineteenth century. The cultivars differ mostly in such characteristics as harvest date and yield. Flavor diffe-rences are insignificant, especially for a fruit that is consumed only after processing, so varieties are not marketed by name.

Cranberry plants are woody evergreens whose low stature, thin stems, half-inch leaves, and small blossoms give the plant a delicate appearance. So-called runner stems creep along the ground, forming roots wherever they contact moist soil. In lieu of pruning, cranberry bogs are covered every few years with a two-inch depth of sand, which rejuvenates plants by stimulating formation of new roots on covered portions of stems. The flowers, poised like white cranes on the stalks (the inspiration for the name “craneberry,” which became “cranberry”) are self-fruitful. Fruits ripen from 60 to 120 days after flowering, depending on the cultivar.

Cranberries are harvested either dry or wet. All the vines are trained in the same direction for dry harvest, and the berries are popped off the vines as they are combed with a rake. Fields are flooded for wet harvest, and special machinery is used to beat the berries from the vine. The dislodged berries float and can then be gathered together for harvest. The bulk of the cranberry crop is sold processed. Fresh fruits keep well and will ripen and redden to some degree even off the vine. The fruit, which is high in vitamin C, is processed into sauces, juices, relishes, and, of course, jelly, the traditional accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey.

Interesting Tidbits
Cranberries in History
Native Americans introduced cranberries to New England colonists, who quickly adopted them into their cookery. John Josselyn reported in New England’s Rarities Discovered (1672) that “the Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat; and it is a delicate Sauce especially for roasted Mutton; Some make Tarts with them as with Goose Berries.” In 1728 cranberries were identified as a food that children could eat between meals. America’s first cookbook author, Amelia Simmons, recommended in American Cookery (1796) that turkey be served with cranberries, a connection most likely made since early colonial times. During the nineteenth century, cranberries were used extensively in pies, sauces, jellies, jams, preserves, puddings, dumplings, marmalades, and ketchup. Cranberries were also mashed and made into a beverage called “cranberryade.”

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