By Meaghan Sands
This Thanksgiving, as you ask your uncle Larry to pass the cranberry sauce, be thankful for that little fruit that is a US native.
Whether your eat it from a can or make it yourself, whether you put it on your meats or eat it in a dessert or whether you like it with oranges or winter spices, cranberries have been a part of the lives of the people who have lived on American soil for centuries.
If we could travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving meal in November of 1681 we would find seafood, fowl and various fruits and vegetables that were popular with the Native Americans. Cranberries were most likely not on the menu; at least not in the way we consume them today.
Native Americans had been consuming the fruit before the Pilgrims landed, and had realized they could also use it as a natural dye and for medicinal purposes. Cranberry juice was also a beverage in the 1600s.
It wasn’t until about 50 years after the first Thanksgiving that people started to boil cranberries with sugar to make jams and relishes to use as an accompaniment to meat. They could not have done this during the first Thanksgiving meal because, by the time that day came, their stores of sugar that had been brought over would have been at or near depletion.
The Pilgrims did not just contribute a new way of consuming these fruits, but they also named them. The name “cranberry” comes from the name “crane berry,” a fruit familiar to the Pilgrims, which has pink blossoms that resembled the bill of a crane.
American mariners soon discovered that they could use cranberries to keep scurvy away on their voyages. Little did they know that it was actually the vitamin C found in fresh and dried cranberries that allowed them to keep scurvy at bay.
Cranberries have a long history of growth on US soil. They are one of three fruits that can trace their roots to North America. The other two being blueberries and Concord grapes. Cranberries are also one of the few native fruits that are commercially grown.
General Ulysses S. Grant sealed cranberries fate as part of the American Thanksgiving dinner in 1864 when he ordered it be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal.
In 1871 the first US Association of Cranberry Growers was formed and, in some areas, there are some cranberry vines that have only been worked with by a few families throughout the decades of their growth. Some vines in Massachusetts are more than 150 years old. This is possible due to the durability of cranberry vines. If kept undamaged, they can live indefinitely.
As cranberries began to gain in popularity, Ocean Spray jumped on the band wagon in 1912 when it began canning and selling cranberry sauce to Americans.
Despite popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water like the Ocean Spray commercials may lead you to assume. They actually require a specific growing environment composed of acid peat soil, an adequate fresh water supply, sand, a growing season from April to November and a winter dormancy period.
Because cranberry vines grow in thick, impenetrable “bogs” made up of sand, peat, gravel and clay, they must be flooded with fresh water when ready to harvest. This is the sight you are seeing in the popular Ocean Spray commercials. The berries are knocked from their vines using special harvesting machinery and float to the surface due to an air bubble present in each fruit.
Now, US farmers harvest approximately 40,000 acres of cranberries each year with Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington among the top cranberry growing states within the US.
Cranberries have maintained their lineages, and the growing and harvesting methods have not changed drastically over the years. They are now not only popular among farmers, but have found their way to many American Thanksgiving dinner tables, just as they will this season.
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