Ah, cranberries. One of the most magical berries - beautiful, nutritious, and surprisingly historic! Whether you love the canned version with those easy-to-slice indentations, or are more of a purist and prefer to make your own cranberry sauce, this little berry has quite a story to tell.
Please join me as we discuss how this fascinating berry came to be one of the most celebrated ingredients of the holiday season. You may be surprised to find out just how much the determined little cranberry has in common with 2020!
The delicious little red berry we know as the cranberry has actually had many names over the years. Let’s start with the science. The two major species of cranberry are Vaccinium Oxycoccus (European) and Vaccinium Macrocarpon (North American). Both species are comprised of perennial woody low-growing small evergreen shrubs and trailing vines that grow well in the sandy clay soil left by the receding glaciers of our last ice age. It just so happens that the New England area of America is prime real estate for such soil composition, making Massachusetts a natural habitat of this native fruit.
The early European settlers in New England - mostly Dutch, German, and English - were already familiar with the cranberry’s European cousin, which they called the fenberry. This is because it grew in the fen, or marshes, of their homeland. They began calling this fruit “craneberry”, derived from the German kraanbere because they thought the cranberry flower resembled a Sandhill crane’s neck, head, and bill. I don’t really see the resemblance, but I suppose when it’s the 1600s, you’re in a new land, and there’s not much else to do, the imagination can run wild. Either way, the name stuck, and we now call this very popular fruit the “cranberry”.
Before we move on, let’s go back to the cranberry’s original name. The name it had before science and English settlers showed up on the scene. To the Algonquins, they were atoqua. The Pequots and Leni-Lenape people named them ibimi. The Wampanoag - the First Nation tribe that lived across the southeastern region of Massachusetts - called these fruits sasumuneash. The Wampanoag tended these lands for over 12,000 years and lived in balance with the native flora and fauna. The annual harvest of wild cranberries was put to use in a variety of ways, including dyes, medicines, and most interestingly by drying and adding to pemmican, a derivative of the Cree word pimîhkân. What is pemmican? It is a hardened mixture of dried meat, dried berries, and tallow that provided nutrition either when out hunting or during winter when fresh food was scarce. Pemmican is still produced and sold today. The Wampanoag had the whole “harmony with nature” thing down.
Then some folks from Europe came along.
These European folks had a lot to learn about tending the land when they settled in their new home. The Wampanoag tried to help these new settlers by teaching them about the local vegetation and game. Of course, we all know what happened around 400 years ago. While the Wampanoag brought corn, fowl, and (very likely) cranberries to that community feast of thanks, the new European settlers brought a little thing called the plague. It was not the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special that modern society wants us to believe. Although disease decimated the Wampanoag people, they do live on today, but do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving. To them, it is a Day of Mourning.
While setting your Thanksgiving table this year, I encourage you to check out Native-Land.ca: Our Home on Native Land. This interactive map allows you to see what First Nation people inhabited the land you now call home. The website also contains education guides and additional resources to further your knowledge of indigeneity and territory awareness.
Back to the berry. Flash forward to 1816, when this gent named Captain Henry Hall took note that the cranberries on his land in Dennis, Massachusetts, grew better when sand blew over them. Look, we all have our quirks, right? Captain Hall developed a seemingly easy technique that quickly became popular among his neighbors - he transplanted cranberry vines then covered them with sand. Suddenly, the idea of cranberries as a commercial crop wasn’t so unrealistic. Throughout the 1800s, many existing swamps, wetlands, and peat bogs were converted into cranberry bogs and by the early 1900s, “Cranberry Fever” was running wild.
In order for supply to meet demand, some modernization in harvesting had to occur. Berries had thus far been hand-picked - intense, back-breaking, and slow work. In the 1880s, the wooden cranberry scoop helped speed up harvesting, but that was still labor intensive. Eventually, it was realized that if the cranberry beds were flooded with water, the ripe cranberries would float to the top thanks to the air-filled chambers inside the fruit. This process, known as “wet harvesting”, again made the process more efficient.
Can’t you just imagine all those little cranberries singing as the waters flow in, “I get bogged down, but I float up again, you’re never gonna peat me down!” Oh, wait… that’s not how the song goes? Well, whatever.
Add in some marvels of modern machinery, like the mechanical harvesters developed between the 1920s and late 1940s, and suddenly you have a successful cash crop. Despite relying solely on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays for the bulk of their profit, the cranberry industry even managed to survive the Great Depression by canning below-market fruit. That’s right - the birth of the infamous canned cranberry sauce. Love the taste or hate it, that congealed tube of boiled sugar and mashed cranberry is a sign of resiliency and innovation.
By the 1950s, the cranberry industry was BOOMING! The Ocean Spray Cooperative was the leading supplier, representing over 90% of the market. Some growers felt this was an illegal monopoly so in 1958, they brought legal action against Ocean Spray for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and actually won damages. However, the attorney for Ocean Spray found a legal loophole that allowed for the formation of agricultural cooperatives, and this exemption allowed Ocean Spray to remain in business. Everything was going great… until…
November 9, 1959. Mere weeks before Thanksgiving, when the holiday menu and grocery shopping is set to commence, when the season of merriment and culinary indulgence is upon us, when the bright little cranberry is entering its time to shine… a man named Arthur S. Fleming makes an announcement that changes everything. Secretary Fleming was the secretary of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and thanks to the Delany Clause, he announced to the nation that fresh cranberries contained a carcinogenic pesticide called aminotriazole.
Hold up - WHAT???? Let’s quickly unpack that sentence. The Delany Clause is a 1958 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act that prohibits artificial substances in food that can cause cancer. Overall, a very good thing, but remember last week when we discussed Big Picture vs Nuance? This is a perfect example. In reality, only trace elements of aminotriazole were found in 1%-2% of cranberries tested in the Northwest region. Additionally, one would have to consume a whopping 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for years on end before it became a true health risk. However, these minor little details were not released to the public and thus, Secretary Fleming caused The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. Jerk.
The effects on the cranberry industry were devastating. Grocery stores pulled cranberries from the shelves. Trailers of cranberries ready to deliver to market were suddenly cancelled. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower - remember when First Ladies gave a f*ck about Christmas? - decided to serve applesauce instead of cranberry sauce at the White House dinner. The press got wind of the menu change and the cranberry was doomed. The market collapsed and the cranberry industry lost millions of dollars overnight.
These cranberry growers - both independent and part of the Ocean Spray Collective - had done nothing wrong. These were mostly family farms that had been built over generations and relied on these few weeks of festivities to survive. Now that was all gone because of a less-than-accurate statement by a very influential government official. Congress did finally step in and paid the growers $8.5 million to compensate for lost wages, which sustained some of the farms until the next growing season. Last year, NPR interviewed John Decas, co-owner of Decas Cranberry Products in Carver, Massachusetts, about his experience as a 20-year-old working in the family business at the time of this scare, and I encourage you to take a quick listen.
This was a wake-up call - the cranberry industry realized they needed to change business models and could no longer rely entirely on a single holiday season for sales. They invested in product development and reinvented the ways in which cranberries were consumed. Suddenly, we had cranberry juice cocktails, dried cranberries, and even cranberry supplements. Once on the brink of collapse, the cranberry came back stronger than ever. It was the little berry that could - and it did.
So, when life, CoVID-19, the economy - the 2020ness of it all - gets you bogged down this holiday season, stop and remember that most determined of little fruits that always rises to the top. Sit up straight and say with your chest - “YES, WE CRAN!”
Stay safe and remember to support small business, folks. Enjoy!
Family Recipe: Cranberry- Ginger Chutney*
1 ½ cups fresh cranberries
16 dried apricots
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup currants
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2-3 Tablespoons cranberry juice cocktail
½ - ¾ Teaspoon cinnamon
- No currants? Just leave them out or add in extra cranberries.
- You can substitute orange juice for the cranberry juice cocktail, or mix the two.
- Brighten up the flavors by zesting in a fresh orange rind.
- Like heat? Add ¼ Teaspoon cayenne pepper.
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan; cook over medium heat and stir to dissolve the brown sugar.
Increase heat to high and boil for approximately 3 minutes.
CAUTION!! The cranberries will be popping, so use caution to avoid getting burned.
Once all cranberries are popped, transfer mixture to a heatproof bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.
Cover and refrigerate. It is best to make this dish the day before to allow all the flavors to meld, but it’s still delicious if made closer to serving time.
*Note: this recipe is not designed for canning; do not attempt to process!