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New England by Heart

Those Odd Little Cranberries

Photo of cranberry harvesting

The little berry that could. That’s what always pops into my head when I think of these strange little fruits. It’s because we’re always struggling to find a place for this bitter berry beyond the Thanksgiving table. 

Photo of handful of cranberries from the field
A handful of fresh-picked cranberries: U.S. Department of Agriculture Lance Cheung/Photojournalist/USDA photo by Lance Cheung, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sure, there’s cranberry juice. And cranberry muffins or scones. Dried cranberries with brown sugar in oatmeal. Mmm.

You’re thinking of all manner of recipes, aren’t you? And that’s why it’s the little berry that could. You may not pop one raw into your maw, but it certainly adds a spark to all manner of foods. And when you run out of food ideas, you can even string some for your Christmas tree!

The plant that produces this little fruit is Vaccinium macrocarpon, a name which does little to endear one to its charms, but puts it in the same genus as blueberries, those popular sweeter blue nuggets. Lifted by association.

It’s a low-growing trailing perennial vine with glossy green leaves, sending out runners to form dense mats in boggy areas. White or pink flowers sprout on vertical stems in late spring and early summer, followed by fruit which starts out light green, then turning to its famous red with the arrival of fall. 

Cranberries need lots of water and sandy, acidic soil. They also need cold months to go into a dormant state. That pretty much limits where they can grow. They are native to boggy areas throughout the northeastern United States, all the way over to Minnesota, in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and in some areas in the Pacific northwest.

Dutch and German colonists in New England originated the English common name “cranberry”, referring to how parts of the plant resembled a crane – that’s the bird, not the machine, which also actually looks like a crane (the bird). Use your imagination.

As with any natural nuts or berries, they were used in food and dyes by Native Americans and colonists alike. Once sugar was readily available in the colonies, the fruit was likely made into a sauce that was enjoyed as an accompaniment to meats, a tradition from the old world. But the first known recipe for cranberry sauce didn’t appear in print until the introduction of the 1796 cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. 

The US is the largest producer of cranberries in the world by far, though Canada is no slouch and even Chile puts in a good showing. New England, however, holds the heart of cranberry harvesting, with the first cultivated bog created in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816, by a Revolutionary War veteran by the name of Captain Henry Hall. Mocked at first, as are many new and innovative ideas, his bog was nonetheless a success, launching an industry.

Photo of Tichnor Brothers postcard of Cape Cod cranberry harvesting

With farmers turning their former marshes and bogs into berry-producing bonanzas, Cape Cod soon became almost synonymous with the pungent little fruit. Innovation replaced handpicking with the introduction of those iconic wooden scoops. Screens and sorters were invented. Cooperatives were founded. Dry harvesters replaced scoopers. Cranberries were canned for the first time in Hansen, Massachusetts. Cranberry sauce became a staple at Thanksgiving.

Then came the great cranberry scare of 1959 (ominous music plays). Black Monday. Seventeen days before Thanksgiving, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the possible contamination of cranberries from Washington and Oregon by a chemical weed killer that caused cancer in rats. 

Panic in the Streets trailer screenshot
Panic ensued: Elia Kazan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Geography didn’t matter. All cranberries were suspect. The media amplified the news with relentless coverage. Cranberries were removed from grocery shelves. The good people of America tossed their cranberries. There were extreme warnings about handling cranberries. Cranberry Blues lyrics by Robert Williams & The Groovers sang to its listeners a warning not to touch cranberries with a 10-foot stick. It was a near cranberry-less Thanksgiving. It nearly killed the cranberry industry.

And the industry fought back. Campaigns were launched about the miniscule risk and wholesomeness of the berry. The Ocean Spray cooperative worked tirelessly to counter the hysteria and forbade use of the weed killer by its growers. Scientists testified before Congress and met with editorial boards. Politicians drank cranberry juice and ate cranberry relish on live TV. Growers engaged agricultural organizations and universities to test batches of cranberries and label them as safe. 

At the end of the day, eight shipments of cranberries, only two percent of the batches tested, were found to have traces of the weed killer. But the damage was done. Hundreds of small growers were wiped out, their farms, some in the same families for over a century, snapped up by large growers in the aftermath.

The industry recovered, of course, with some well-deserved government help. In the 1960s, water harvesting replaced dry harvesting, creating those beautiful fall scenes of berries being rounded up in flooded fields by workers in rubber overalls. New products were introduced that spurred production: various cranberry juice medleys that satisfy every taste, and dried cranberries that are eaten out of the pouch and in all manner of trail mixes. New recipes using cranberries in innovative ways emerged on a regular basis.

Massachusetts continued to dominate, but new-to-the-block Wisconsin, which began commercial growing of cranberries in the late 19th century, was offering some pretty stiff competition. In the 1990s, Wisconsin surpassed Massachusetts in production. Many a New Englander has been surprised to learn that Wisconsin is now the largest producer in the US, providing over 60% of the country’s crop. Adding salt to the wound, despite Massachusetts rightfully declaring the cranberry as its official state fruit in 1994, Wisconsin had the temerity to adopt it as its own official state fruit in 2004.

But take heart, New Englanders. An acquaintance of mine, a retired development specialist at Ocean Spray for 35 years, assured me that the Massachusetts bogs with their irregular patterns following the contours of the land are much more charming, as compared with Wisconsin’s larger and more geometric bogs. 

And we will always know that it began here.

And so, life goes on with the mighty cranberry. Every fall we watch farmers corralling in the bright berries on clear fall days with blue skies reflected in the water against a backdrop of blazing tree colors.

Cranberries are still a staple on the Thanksgiving table in the form of that can-shaped gelatinous favorite, or the traditional lumpy sauce, or the latest make-a-better-mousetrap concoction.

Long live the cranberry.

References

  • Where Tradition Meets Innovation | Massachusetts Cranberries. (n.d.). https://www.cranberries.org/history
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2022b, November 4). Cranberry. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranberry
  • Landrigan, L. (2022, November 7). The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959 Wreaks Havoc at Thanksgiving. New England Historical Society. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-great-cranberry-scare-of-1959-wreaks-havoc-at-thanksgiving/
  • Goers. (2022, October 22). A Brief History Of The Cape Cod Cranberry Industry. The Enterprise. https://www.capenews.net/regional_news/a-brief-history-of-the-cape-cod-cranberry-industry/article_c0c489ff-bdad-552c-9298-95509481e1d0.html
  • Discover Mediaworks. (2022, June 21). Experience Wisconsin’s State Fruit: The Cranberry. Discover Wisconsin. https://discoverwisconsin.com/blog/experience-wisconsins-state-fruit-the-cranberry/

  • Smith, A. K. (2013, November 27). This Man Made the First Canned Cranberry Sauce. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/this-man-made-the-first-canned-cranberry-sauce-180947862/

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