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The History of Cranberries

How the Cranberry Became a Part of Thanksgiving

The American cranberry, vaccinium macrocarpon, was used in American cuisine before the first pilgrims landed on the nation's shores. Native American tradition incorporates cranberries into many dishes, few of them main courses except for pemmican , and it is widely believed though historically dubious that cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving dinner.

 

Since then cranberries have been used largely as a traditional dish, served jellied or in whole berry as a sugared sauce. They are rarely served apart from the American holiday of Thanksgiving, though both sauces are carried year-round in grocery stores.

Some tribes incorporated myths about the cranberry into their religions or oral traditions. The fruit was also utilized medicinally as a ward against indigestion and as a poultice for wounds.

Etymology

There are two common versions of the story regarding how the cranberry got their name. Both state that German settlers named the fruit kranbeere , though in one telling it is because the settlers thought the flower of the blooming cranberry resembled the head and bill of a crane, and in the other, the fruit gets its title because when the flowers first bloom, they bend toward the ground like a crane. There is no reason to suspect that one, the other or a combination of the two is not the historical truth.

The Modern Cranberry

Today cranberries are a large industry year-round for their juice, which is sold alone or in combination with other fruits, such as apples and other berries. The cranberry is a sweet fruit with a heavily tannic, bitter aftertaste that lends well to mixing with other juices and alcoholic beverages. Also, during the holidays, cranberry sauce is included in most American households' celebration of Thanksgiving.

A common misconception about cranberries is that they grow in water because the vines grow in bogs and marshes, and the cranberries float above the surface of the water after being harvested by the large “egg beater” machines utilized in modern cranberry farms. But they do grow on bushes with strong roots in the ground, though the bushes are submerged more often than not, giving the misleading appearance.

Cranberries are harvested in the autumn, between September and December. Ripe, mature fruits are round and deep red, and one of the criteria widely believed to determine the quality of a cranberry is whether or not one can bounce the berry down a staircase. If the fruit bounces well it is a quality product; if it falls flat it is not a good berry. In fact, the “egg beater” machines used by cranberry farms is engineered on this principle, and it filters out “bad” berries automatically.

Cranberries are also used in other areas of the nation, also as holiday dishes in most cases. They are used for Christmas celebrations in Britain and Canada , as a common sauce in Quebec and in foie gras in southern France .

“It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is inedible without it.” Allistair Cooke

by Gabriel Coelis

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How cranberries are grown

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Last updated November 5, 2011