The little red cranberry: sweet, tart and delicious in sweet and savory dishes. Twenty years ago cranberries rarely made an appearance outside of the holiday season where it was cranberry sauce—complete with can-ridges molded right into the surface. Cranberries have bounced their way out of the holiday season stereotype and can now be found and enjoyed throughout the year. From roasted pork with cranberry glaze to white chocolate cranberry cookies, this little red berry is leaving a delicious impression.
History of the Cranberry
The cranberry is one of the few native fruits in North America. Native Americans enjoyed cranberries fresh, ground, or mashed with cornmeal and baked it into bread. They also mixed berries with wild game and melted fat to form pemmican, a survival ration for the winter months. The berry’s tangy, sour flavor was often tempered by using maple sugar or honey. Other common uses for the cranberry included adding it to poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, brewed in tea to calm nerves, and as a dye. English Pilgrims learned about cranberries from the Native Americans, and legend has it that cranberries were included in the first Thanksgiving meal.
Native Americans called the berry Sassamanash and in northeastern Canada they were called mossberries. The traditional English name was fenberry, originating because berry vines were growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th century New England cranberries were sometimes called "bearberries" as bears were often seen feeding on them or “bounceberries” because ripe berries will bounce when dropped. Where the name “cranberry”
came from is something of a mystery. One theory has German and Dutch settlers having named the berry “craneberry”
because it appeared to be a favorite food of the cranes who nested near the bogs. Another theory has “craneberry”
coming from the shape of the blossoms, which resemble the head and neck of an English crane. Either way, eventually the name was shortened to “cranberry.”
Cranberry sales in the United States have traditionally been associated with holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry sauce came into the picture via General Ulysses S. Grant who ordered it served to the troops during the siege of Petersburg in 1864. It would first be commercially canned in 1912 by the Cape Cod Cranberry Company which marketed the product as "Ocean Spray Cape Cod Cranberry Sauce." A merger with other growers evolved into the well-known Ocean Spray Corporation, now famous for their cranberry products.
Cranberry Scare of 1959
On November 9, 1959, Arthur S. Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare announced that some cranberries grown in Oregon and Washington State had been found to have been contaminated with a weed killer that had been found to cause cancer in rats. When questioned, he said that if a housewife is unable to determine the origin of fresh or canned cranberries, "to be on the safe side, she doesn't buy."
The announcement, coming shortly before Thanksgiving, caused a crisis in the industry. Cranberries were pulled from grocery shelves and sales dropped precipitously. After testing it was found that very few shipments of cranberries were contaminated. Both Flemming and Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson made a point of announcing that they would have cranberries with their Thanksgiving dinners. By Christmas, large quantities of cranberries were available bearing labels saying that they had either been tested by the Food and Drug Administration or otherwise certified safe. However, the "cranberry scare of 1959" had caused its damage. It would take years for the cranberry industry to fully recover.
A common misconception about cranberry production is that the beds remain flooded throughout the year. During the growing season cranberry beds are not flooded, but are irrigated regularly to maintain soil moisture. Beds are flooded in the autumn after the fruit takes on its distinctive deep red color, usually in September through the first part of November.
Although most cranberries are “wet-picked,” 5–10% of the US crop is still dry-picked. This entails higher labor costs and lower yield, but dry-picked berries are less bruised and can be sold as fresh fruit instead of having to be immediately frozen or processed. Originally performed with two-handed comb scoops, dry picking is today accomplished by motorized, walk-behind harvesters which must be small enough to traverse beds without damaging the vines.
To wet-pick cranberries, the beds are flooded with six to eight inches of water above the vines. A harvester is driven through the beds to remove the fruit. Harvested cranberries float in the water and can be corralled and collected from a corner of the beds. From the farm, cranberries are taken to receiving stations where they are cleaned, sorted, and stored prior to packaging or processing.
White cranberry juice is made from regular cranberries that have been harvested after the fruits are mature, but before they have attained their characteristic dark red color.
Truly fresh, ripe cranberries will bounce if you drop them and are quite firm to the touch. They should be shiny and plump and range in color from bright light red to dark red. Shriveled, bruised, or brown cranberries should be discarded.