The countdown to Thanksgiving continues. As you go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, let’s consider cranberries*. Now, there are many staple dishes that are made from scratch for Thanksgiving dinner. Cranberry sauce is sometimes one of them. I know people that have recipes for this delightfully sweet and sour offering. They start from whole cranberries and contain hints of citrus and spices that announce the warmth of the holiday season no matter the actual outdoor weather conditions. While I can appreciate the effort, that is not my family’s tradition. Ours is always the easiest of preparations. A can (often more than one) of chilled Ocean Spray canned cranberry sauce is opened with a can opener- manually cranked for the illusion of hand-crafted preparation. A butter knife is run along the inner circumference of the can. It is then tipped upside down over a fancy silver or glass dish until the entire gelled burgundy contents come out with a satisfying slurp. The cylinder is then sliced and arranged carefully on the aforementioned fancy dish. This is one of my favorite side dishes of the Thanksgiving meal, and dinner hosts will soon get the side eye from me if they dare forget this simplest of pleasures on our day of thankfulness. I’m sure I’m not the only one because Americans eat 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. But how much do you know about the species behind the sauce?
Cranberries are the fruit of a creeping shrub native to North America. Its proper name is Vaccinium oxycoccos, but derived its common name from a couple of potential sources. The bright red berries were a favorite of cranes, but also the delicate flowers look quite similar to the head and neck of a crane. Eventually crane-berries disambiguated to cranberry, and that’s what we’ve been calling them since Colonial times.
The United States produces the majority (70%) of the world’s cranberries- nearly 800 million pounds. While the tight association of cranberries with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving may lead you to believe that production occurs in the northeast, in fact, the state that by far produces the most cranberries is Wisconsin. Cranberries have a long history of cultivation. Some varieties developed in the 1800s and are still in use today. They have names like Early Blacks, Stevens, Howes, Searles, Ben Lear and McFarlin. Not only are the varieties old, but some of the beds in Massachusetts and Wisconsin have producing for more than 100 years!
The recent commercials depicting flooded bogs floating with red cranberries may lead you to believe they look like that all the time. That’s not the case. Flooding the bogs in the fall only facilitates harvesting because agitators can be used to release the berries with their air-filled pockets from the vines and they float to the surface for easy collection. The bogs remain water-logged for the winter where they freeze and are covered in sand for insulation until spring. The cranberries need this period of cold dormancy, which explains why the Louisiana wetlands have not been exploited for cranberry production. In the spring, the bogs are drained and the vines experience new growth and flower. The berries form over the summer, starting as small green nodes, ripening to white berries and finally their characteristic deep red.
The majority of these cranberries end up as cranberry juice or jellied cranberry sauce. Those of you overachievers making your sauce from scratch with whole cranberries are in the minority. Only about 5% of the world’s cranberry crop is sold as fresh berries and the majority of these are hand-picked from dry fields (a labor-intensive process). This wasn’t always the case, which brings me to my favorite Thanksgiving side dish. Until about 1912, cranberries were only available as fresh fruit and only for two months of the year. Marcus L. Urann was a lawyer that traded his profession for a cranberry bog in New England. He wanted to expand the timeline of the market for his berries, so he set up a cooking facility and started making innovative creations like cranberry juice and canned jellied sauce. The jellied sauce as we know it today became nationally available in 1941. Urann, being a lawyer along with his lawyer friend John Quarles, found a loophole in the anti-trust laws of the time that exempted agricultural processing. He brokered a merger between the two largest cranberry companies at the time to become Cranberry Canners Inc. which eventually evolved into Ocean Spray- the reigning cranberry cartel. To this day it remains a grower’s cooperative to set prices and standards. Hey, I’m not complaining. There’s no way I could make my own cranberry sauce for about $1 a can.
Now you know the story behind the slurp. Tomorrow, pause just a moment for thanks and consider the interesting history of cranberry sauce before you slurp it down yourself.
*No, not one of my favorite 90’s bands.