The shiny red cranberry, whose blossom looks like the head and neck of a sandhill crane, hence how it gets its name, is a simple curiosity and an easy sell to a young child. With sweet palates and a love for berries, children are easily attracted to these glossy show-stoppers at a young age. But just like the disappointment felt when tasting vanilla extract for the first time, a raw cranberry laughs at expectations. It’s nothing but a sour pucker. As a young child, my lips pursed at the first bite of a cranberry, but I would soon go back for more.
Sugar makes everything better – at least for the European settlers in early colonial days. They had a sweet tooth and sugar with a little cranberry is absolutely delicious on meat, which is one way early settlers enjoyed this native berry.
The Native Americans, however, with a completely different affinity for natural foods, had already developed what would be the equivalent of a modern-day energy bar using wild cranberries – minus the sweet sugar.
According to National Geographic magazine, Native Americans made pemmican by pounding cranberries into equal parts deer meet and fat tallow. The mixture would store in animal skin pouches.
“The fat preserves it, as does the acidity in the fruit, which lowers the pH and helps resist bacteria,” says food historian Ken Albala, of University of the Pacific. “The pemmican would last for months and could be eaten on long journeys as a reliable source of protein and fat.”
Cranberries are one of the few fruits native to North America. Its native range extends in temperate climate zones from the East Coast to the Central U.S. and Canada, and from Southern Canada in the north to the Appalachians in the south. Commercial cranberry harvests began in the 1800s and cranberries are now grown commercially in 11 states: Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York. Wisconsin is the largest grower of cranberries in the world. Cranberries are also grown in several Canadian provinces such as British Columbia, Quebec, and the Maritimes, and in the country of Chile.
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. But water is used to harvest them. Cranberries are perennial plants, grow in marshy areas and require about an inch of water per week in the growing season. When harvest time comes these marshy areas or “bogs” are flooded with water. The cranberry actually contains four air pockets in each fruit, making them float and easier to pick in water. Cranberry harvests range from September through December depending upon the state. Luckily, cranberries freeze quite well, making it possible to enjoy them year-round.
Thanksgiving month, or as some people call it “November,” I spend my daydreaming time contemplating the traditional meal we serve on the last Thursday of the month. A few side dishes may change from year to year, but there are certain dishes that will always be fixtures of the day, like cranberry sauce.
The invention of cranberry sauce is credited to Marcus L. Urann, a lawyer who left his legal career in 1912 to buy a cranberry bog. Marcus helped develop a number of cranberry products like cranberry juice cocktail in 1933 and canned cranberry sauce, which became available nationwide in 1941. The name of his company? Ocean Spray.
At a young age, I was introduced to the undertaking of making cranberry sauce, and I found turning the crank of the food mill very satisfying. As the food mill removes the skins, the tart, red pulp that is left behind boasts a deep color that dazzles the eyes. Adding sugar and settling into a slow boil, the sauce process is a lengthy yet mesmerizing experience. The smells and vivid color of the berries can distract from the fact that cranberries are also good for you. They contain vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants and are widely known for promoting bladder health.
I am always entertained by the cranberry. After accidentally dropping them as a child I discovered, much to my amusement, that they bounce. Even my lazy basset hound has been known to chase a jumping cranberry across the kitchen floor for entertainment. My love of cranberries has as much to do with the experience of cooking them as it does the taste. Listening to the pop as they boil is something I remember from my childhood and turning the crank of the food mill makes me feel like I am actively carrying on a cultural holiday tradition. So, as we settle into the month of Thanksgiving, I challenge you to try something new with this most interesting native berry, and in doing so you may discover how versatile, delicious and intriguing they can be. Pucker up.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Mom’s Fresh Cranberry Cookies
For best results, make the batter ahead, refrigerate, and bake them fresh on the holiday.
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup milk
2 T orange juice, or lemon juice
3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup chopped nuts
2 ½ cups (12 oz.) coarsely chopped cranberries
Cream butter and sugars together. Beat in milk, orange juice and egg. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Combine with creamed mixture and blend well. Stir in chopped nuts and cranberries. Drop by teaspoons onto greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes. Makes about 12 dozen tea-size cookies.
Mom Mom Chance’s Cranberry Relish
2 small boxes of orange Jell-O (3 oz)
2 cups of hot water
1 whole seedless orange
juice of 2 other oranges
2 cups of sugar
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup of chopped pecans or walnuts
12 oz. raw cranberries (one package), washed
Pour hot water over Jell-O. When Jell-O is dissolved, add orange juice. Stir in sugar and let stand until dissolved. Meanwhile, cut orange into pieces (including the rind) and chop the orange pieces and cranberries in food processor. Set aside. When Jell-O has cooled and begun to thicken, add cranberries, orange celery and nuts. Pour in mold and set in refrigerator. Serves 12.
Cranberry Pecan Pie
1 cup corn syrup
2/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans
Combine first five ingredients. Stir in cranberries and pecans. Pour into crust. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes then reduce heat to 350 and bake 35-40 minutes longer until filing is almost set. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight before slicing. Best served cold.
Josie A’s Cranberry Coffee Cake
Blend 2 tsp. cornstarch with ½ cup of water. Add 1 lb. cranberries, 1 cup sugar, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp ground cloves. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring until cranberries pop open and mixture is thickened. Cool.
Mix ¼ cup flour and ⅔ cup packed light brown sugar. Cut in ¼ cup softened butter until crumbly. Set aside.
⅔ cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 ⅔ cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla
Cream butter and sugar, add eggs, beating after each one. Mix dry ingredients and add alternately with milk, beating after each addition until smooth. Add vanilla and spread into a greased 13 x 9 x 2 pan Spread cranberry topping over top, then sprinkle with crumb topping. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes.