Cranberries: Authentically American Treat on the Turkey Table Since 1621

It’s the only red thing on the table at Thanksgiving, but the superfruit that is authentically American has a lot more going for it than it’s bright red color on Thanksgiving.

Cranberries are a great resource for New England, and are the largest cash crop in Massachusetts. Though Wisconsin grows the most cranberries in the country by number, the superfruit is vitally important to this state’s agricultural industry. With cranberry sauce being such a vital part of the Thanksgiving table, that means the season is vitally important to the cranberry industry here – an industry that booms in the fall months mostly on the South Shore and towards Cape Cod.

Ocean Spray officials, who are based in Carver on the South Shore, said Thanksgiving accounts for 37 percent of annual cranberry sales – basically between September and November.

There are any number of things that the cranberry can provide for the Thanksgiving table. Obviously, the cranberry sauce is the most common, but Ocean Spray officials said other popular Thanksgiving uses are brussels sprouts with cranberries, cranberries in salads, cranberry cocktails, and cranberry sweet potato casserole.

The oddest cranberry recipe, they said:  “Cranberry turkey chili leftovers.”

Aside from the common or the bizarre, cranberries were known to have many other uses in the past – particularly among Native Americans in New England.

“Cranberries are native to North America, including the Northeast, and are one of only three cultivated fruits that are indigenous to this continent,” said an Ocean Spray spokesperson. “They are authentically American, and the superfruit has been used for many purposes throughout history. Native Americans used cranberries for food, medicine, dyes for clothes and blankets, to cure meat, and to draw poison from arrow wounds, as early as 1550. For this reason, legend has it that cranberries were included in the first Thanksgiving meal, which was in 1621.”

Another reason they are most popular on Thanksgiving is because of their harvest season, which falls from mid-September to mid-November. Ocean Spray farmers harvest billions of cranberries during that period in bogs where they grow. The bogs are soft, marshy ground with acidic peat soil – and are most commonly found near wetlands. Cranberries grow on long, running vines, and don’t grow underwater as many tend to think.

Like flower bulbs, they are a perennial crop and grow on vines that are hundreds of years old.

“When cranberries are ready for harvest, the bogs are flooded with water,” said the Ocean Spray spokesperson. “Farmers then use water reels, nicknamed “eggbeaters,” to churn the water and loosen the cranberries from the vine. Each berry has a tiny pocket of air that allows it to float to the surface of the water. From there, they’re corralled together to be harvested and become delicious food and drinks for family tables worldwide.”

Ocean Spray officials said cranberries weren’t always called “cranberries.” For Eastern Native Americans, they were called “sassamanesh.” Cape Cod Pequots and South Jersey Leni-Lenape tribes called them “ibimi,” or bitter berry. And the Algonquins of modern-day Wisconsin dubbed the superfruit “atoqua.” 

It was the German and Dutch settlers who started calling the cranberry a “crane berry” because of the flower’s resemblance to the head and bill of a crane. Interestingly, that name stuck, and gave us the modern cranberry terminology.

More recently, cranberries have become not only an annual Thanksgiving staple, but also a popular staple of the health food gurus. Cranberries are actually very nutritional and are considered a superfruit in the same vein as the once-maligned pomegranate. They are rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, prebiotic fibers, vitamins, and minerals. Among the cranberry’s many benefits include raising good cholesterol, improving blood pressure, maintaining cardiovascular health, and even protecting the body against inflammation that may lead to certain cancers. The strong antioxidant capacity of cranberries is also associated with the prevention of some diseases and improved digestion.

So, whether its sauce out of a can, or an hours-long boil of fresh berries, this Thanksgiving, make sure to break bread with a little red on the table.

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