CRANBERRY HISTORY ADDS TO
Once again we are in the time of year I love best. All the beauty and traditions of the Autumn season are a prelude to the Thanksgiving celebration which brings families, friends and our community together as one.
All of us have our own memories and traditions which are shared at this time and with the coming of each new season more memories and traditions are made to add to the rich bank we already have gathered. There is no part of the year more beautiful and colorful than the weeks leading up to when we return our thanks for all the bountiful treasures we have been so richly blessed with.
Past Monroe Thanksgivings for me revolve around the football games, the traditional "coffee’s" served prior to the Georgia/Georgia Tech games, the trees adorned in brilliant colors offering an artist’s palet, then covering the ground with color only to be raked up in big mountains which now go into bags instead of being burned, pumpkins galore decorating doorways, mailboxes and garden areas, scented candles offering up their tantalizing fragrances as we snuggle under a throw to read or watch movies as the days grow dark early, the spiced cider on the stove reminding us it is never too soon to enjoy a sip or two, making up the lists of food in preparing our traditional Thanksgiving feast, friends stopping by for a pre-holiday libation to help knock off the chill in the air, the rumbling of the furnace offering the first heat of the season to warm a chilly house, remembering and appreciating those family and friends who brought smiles and laughter to us by their presence and are no longer by our side. All these memories plus so much more combine to help bring a sense of history and ongoing tradition to the forthcoming Thanksgiving celebration.
Rick Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, reflected recently in Southern Living Magazine about a long held tradition of Thanksgiving which few of us ever really think about but is just as much a part of the celebration as is the turkey……the little red cranberry. He remembers his mother opening a can of jellied cranberry sauce and letting it slide out onto a platter or dish and being served around the table close to the turkey & dressing. Careful attention was given to getting the "red log" out of the can and onto a platter in one piece. Back in the old days many folks in Monroe thought that as the only way to serve cranberry sauce. It didn’t look elegant or festive, just sitting there in all its round glory, but we knew it was an integral part of the holiday meal. Thanks to the many cooks, chef’s and culinary artisans who have shown us the myriad ways of enhancing our holiday meals, we have learned there is another version of the jellied cranberry; whole cranberry sauce and its derivatives which can be served from an antique or crystal container. In today’s world there is a debate among many as to which is more "traditional", the canned log or the more appealing whole berry sauce.
Reading Bragg’s story made me wonder as to the provenance of the little red berry so I did some research and came up with some interesting facts of how it came to be such a small but integral part of our holiday dining tradition.
Tens of thousands of years ago, receding glaciers carved out cavities in the land that evolved into cranberry bogs. These newly formed kettle ponds filled with sand, clay and debris made the perfect environment for vines to spread across the South Shore, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Massachusetts was born with cranberry bogs.
Wampanoag People across southeastern Massachusetts have enjoyed the annual harvest of "sasumuneash", wild cranberries", for 12,000 years. Some ate berries fresh while others dried them to make "nasampe" (grits) or "pemmican" a mix of berries, dried meat and animal fat which could last for a long time. The medicine men, or "powwows", used cranberries as traditional healing rituals to fight fever, swelling and seasickness.
Europeans who explored and settled in New England in the 16th and 17th centuries were not surprised to see saumuneash as they were familiar with European cranberry varities which grew in the boggy regions of southern England and in the low-lying Netherlands. The English had various names for the fruit but "craneberries" was the most common as many thought the flower resembled the head of a Sandhill crane.
Cultivation of the cranberry began in 1816, after Captain Henry Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran, of Dennis, Massachusetts, noticed the wild cranberries in his bogs grew better when sand blew over them. Captain Hall began transplanting cranberry vines and spreading sand on them. Hearing of Hall’s technique, many began copying his procedure. Throughout the 19th century, the number of growers steadily increased.
While initially criticized for tinkering with vines, the idea of growing and selling cranberries commercially caught on and local landowners quickly converted their swamps, wetlands, peat swamps and wet meadows into cranberry bogs. By 1885, Plymouth County boasted 1,347 acres under cultivation; Barnstable County had 2,408. By 1900 the number of acres tripled, making Cape Cod a household name. "Cranberry Fever" struck and the industry boomed. In 1927, the cranberry harvest remained such a vital business the Massachusetts children could be excused from school to work the bogs during harvest season.
Growing cranberries demanded long hours of back-breaking work. Farmers looked for new tools to build better bogs and harvest cranberries more efficiently. In the 1880’s wooden cranberry scoops began to replace the traditional hand-picking; sorters and screening equipment soon followed. Although many growers still relied on traditional family and community support during the harvest, demands for higher wages provided opportunities for newly arrived immigrants from Finland and the Cape Verdean Islands who sought better economic opportunities and the chance of an improved life.
Expansion and increased global demand meant the need for a system of grading and branding berries. Newly developed agricultural co-ops like the Cape Cod Cranberry Sales Company set market prices for berries and regulated distribution to ensure growers received the fairest prices for the berries and the consumers got the best product.
Cranberries are harvested in the fall when the fruit takes on its distinctive deep red color. Berries that receive sun turn a dark red when fully ripe, while those that don’t fully mature are a pale pink or white in color. This harvest usually occurs in September through the first part of November. To harvest 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 berries from the vines. Harvested cranberries float in the water and can be corralled into a corner of the bed and there removed. From the farms the berries are taken to receiving stations where they are cleaned, sorted and stored prior to packaging and processing.
Cranberries for fresh markets are stored in shallow bins or boxes with perforated or slatted bottoms which deter decay by allowing air to circulate. Since harvest occurs in the late autumn, cranberries for fresh markets are stored in thick walled barns without mechanical refrigeration. Temperatures are regulated by opening and closing vents in the barn as needed.
Researching some other early history revealed in 1550, James White Norwood made references to Native Americans using cranberries. James Rosier's book, "The Land of Virginia", mentions an account of Europeans coming ashore and being met by Native Americans bearing bark cups full of cranberries. In 1643 Roger Williams’s book, "A Key into the Language of America", described cranberries, referring to them as "bearberries", because bears ate them. In 1663 a Pilgrim cookbook appears with the recipe for cranberry sauce. In 1683, "The Compleat Cook’s Guide", referenced making cranberry juice.
For us and generations before us, the brand of cranberry most widely known, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., was founded in 1930 and has provided us with the delicious red berries that add to the many traditions we have developed over the years making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners memorable events.
I hope each of you have a special place set for your dish of cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving season and remember the reasons we should all be thankful on this holiday.