Why Americans Relish Cranberries
America's dinners will get very colorful in the next couple of weeks. Most of us will eat lots of green vegetables and an abundance of orange, from sweet potatoes to pumpkin pie. But the star of the plate will be that Thanksgiving peacock, the cranberry.
Cranberries are grown in the northeastern United States, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon, as well as in Canada. Massachusetts has the oldest cranberry story — some vines date to the time of the Pilgrims. When colonists arrived in North America, they found a cranberry that was twice the size of the berries they were used to back in Europe, though just as tasty. (America has been super-sizing portions from the very start.) Today, Wisconsin is the country's leading cranberry producer.
Natural bogs evolved in Massachusetts from glacial deposits, which, over time, filled up with water and decaying matter. The resulting layers of sand and organic material comprise the ideal soil for cranberries. Last month in Plymouth County, Mass., the red-dotted landscape was evidence of thousands of years of geological evolution.
Today, of course, farmers don't just leave their harvests to the whims of nature. Contemporary cranberries are cultivated.
They have to be. Americans will eat 400 million pounds of the tart little berries this year, 20 percent of them during Thanksgiving week.
Cranberries are perfect, edible jewels. They turn any meal into a showstopper. But their glamorous exterior belies a bitter truth: They're virtually inedible as they are. Raw cranberries are mouth-puckeringly sour, which is why they're almost always paired with sugar or some other sweetener such as maple syrup.
Fortunately, they're redeemed not just by their striking good looks but also by their extensive health benefits. Cranberries are rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients. Research indicates they may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, urinary tract infections, gum disease and ulcers. They're also high in vitamins A and C and in potassium. The tiny berries pack a powerful nutritional punch.
They're not only gorgeous, healthful and delicious, they're fun — particularly for those of us who still like to play with our food. Small pockets of air within each berry mean they both float and bounce. This is more than a fun fact, though. This air pocket actually determines how the berries are harvested.
The berries we see in stores each fall have usually been dry-harvested. So while they might not be quite as colorful, they keep better.
But most cranberries are wet-harvested, which means the bog is flooded and the berries float to the top, where they're easily scooped up by farmers in waders. These can be a bit redder than the others; they're usually used in processed foods, juices and sauces.
Of course, indigenous people have been cooking with cranberries for hundreds of years, long before wet harvesting was even invented, according to Eleanor Jackson of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts laboriously picked the berries from the vine and added them to porridge or pounded them by hand into what she calls "the original fruit leather."
It's debatable whether cranberries were present at the "first Thanksgiving" (which was not, in fact, a thanksgiving but a shared harvest celebration). If they were served at that special meal hundreds of years ago, it was almost certainly not in a sugar-sweetened sauce.
More likely, the Wampanoag guests brought dishes containing unsweetened berries. If the English used cranberries, it was probably to add tartness and color to a sauce (as in the duck recipe below.) It wasn't until years later that the colonists started sweetening them with sugar.
Regardless of who used them, when and how, there's one timeless truth about cranberries: It's a shame not to use them year round. And while their growing season is over for now, they freeze extremely well. There's one more thing to love about cranberries: No need to thaw them before using.
So come February, when everything's looking drab, grab some cranberries from the freezer, whip up a simple pie or sauce, invite some friends over and turn an otherwise average midwinter Sunday supper into a colorful feast.
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