Native to North America, cranberries make their way onto Thanksgiving tables every year in the form of sauce or relish. But the ruby-red fruit doesn’t disappear once Black Friday (or these days, the combined holidays of Thanksgiving and The Advent of Christmas Shopping) rolls around. You see, cranberries aren’t just for Turkey Day anymore.
Wisconsin—America’s Cranberry Capital
The berry once called “craneberry”1 by European settlers to North America is an agricultural mainstay here in the Flyover States. Wisconsin, the Badger State, is the US state producing the most cranberries, growing over half of the nation’s supply, with 19,700 acres harvested2. Massachusetts is number two (13,000 acres), with New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington rounding out the top five. Not only does Wisconsin produce the most in terms of acreage, its yield per acre (245.2 barrels) is the most of any cranberry-growing state. I guess Wisconsin isn’t just for cheeseheads anymore—cranheads anyone?
And just what are those fruits used for? Well, most are processed into juice and sauce, both of which require sugar to overcome the cranberry’s strong acidity. Dried, sweetened cranberries are another way they are used as food—these find their way into granolas, baked goods, or snack mixes. Come fall, fresh cranberries can be found in supermarkets; they freeze well, so buy a few extra bags to tide you over until they appear the following fall.
The species Vaccinium macrocarpon, the large cranberry or American cranberry, is the fruit familiar to the American and Canadian Thanksgiving dinner table, typically in the form of a sauce to accompany the traditional turkey. The cranberry plant is a dwarf shrub and the berries it produces are whitish at first; only upon ripening do they turn red.
Like blueberries, cranberry bushes grow in acidic soils. They require plentiful water, though a constantly flooded habitat is not required. Historically, cranberries grew in wetlands—marshes and bogs. Commercial cultivation replicates wetlands conditions in order to maintain an environment conducive to cranberry growth.
Historically, cranberries were harvested by hand. But as the cranberry industry grew, the harvesting methods became more efficient and sophisticated. Today, there are two types of harvesting—wet and dry.
Berries processed for juice and sauce are usually harvested via the wet method. This is the process seen in photos with growers wearing waders and chasing a flotilla of berries. To harvest with this method, the bogs are flooded prior to harvest. Equipment called water reels agitate the water, which in turn loosens cranberries from the plant. Then they float to the surface, thanks to the air pocket found in each cranberry. The growers then gather the cranberries together for shipping and processing.
The dry harvest process is more akin to other types of agricultural harvesting. A mechanical picker strips the bush with mechanical teeth, which separates the berries from the bush. Fresh berries (those found in cellophane bags in market produce departments) are harvested using the dry method.
Ocean Spray cranberries in the bag and Sandhill organic cranberries in the box.
Cranberries in Native American Cuisine and Culture
Since cranberries are native to North America, they featured in the diet of the indigenous populations. Among the Native names from cranberries were atoqua (Algonquin), ibimi (Lenni Lenape), and sassamanesh (other Eastern tribes). Pemmican, a mixture of local berries like cranberries, fat, and dried venison or other game, served as an important source of calories for many Native Americans. Additionally, it had strong keeping qualities—the combination of the acidic cranberry plus the fat meant that pemmican could be stored for long periods of time. Cranberries were also eaten fresh and dried (sans game). This is not surprising, given their nutritional benefits; cranberries are an antioxidant powerhouse, loaded with Vitamin C.
Cranberries were also used medicinally. Among their uses were blood purification, treatment for fever, and use as a laxative. Additionally, the bright color of ripe cranberries allowed them to be used as dyes for textiles.
The Thanksgiving-Cranberry Connection
We probably have the Ocean Spray company to thank for the ubiquitous inclusion of cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving table. While cranberries had been eaten earlier (and may have been part of Thanksgiving), Ocean Spray’s first commercial product was jellied cranberry sauce. Formed as a cooperative by three growers in 1930, Ocean Spray has grown to a 700-grower cooperative today. Although they’ve introduced numerous other products, they still make that jellied sauce. And, of course, they produce fresh cranberries, for those of us who would like to make our own sauce.
1It was so called because the flowering fruit was thought to resemble a crane.
2Data are from 2012. The source is the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The Oxford Companion to Food, Second Edition (Alan Davidson)