By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Turkey without cranberry sauce? For most New Englanders that's as unthinkable as Thanksgiving without turkey! In fact, even the Pilgrims enjoyed this versatile perennial fruit with their first Thanksgiving meal.
The cranberry is a native American wetland plant that is grown in open bogs and marshes from Newfoundland to western Ontario and as far south as Virginia and Arkansas. Massachusetts is the leading producer (with about half of the total U.S. crop), followed by Wisconsin.
The vine-like plant grows from six inches to two feet long and has small, evergreen leaves and pinkish flowers. The berries are harvested in October, just in time for Thanksgiving.
The cranberry was a staple in the diet of Native Americans who called it the "bitter berry." They introduced this food to the early settlers and taught them how to make "pemmican" by pounding the cranberries together with dried meat and fat. The settlers also made meat sauces with cranberries and mixed them with maple sap to make a sweet breakfast syrup.
Production of cranberries requires a large amount of water--the equivalent of about 200 inches of rainfall a year for irrigation, frost protection, harvest, pest control, and winter protection. Soil pH needs to be between 4.0 and 5.0 because cranberries require low pH for adequate nutrient intake. In Massachusetts, the Cape Cod area is especially suited for commercial cranberry production.
About 90 percent of the cranberries are wet harvested. Bogs are flooded just prior to harvest, then a floating harvester moves through the bog to separate the berries from the vine. The hollow fruit rises to the surface where it is collected and corralled in a section of the bog.
The fruit is moved from the bog to the waiting trucks by elevator, then taken away for processing. Fruit that is harvested by this method is processed into juice, sauce, and other cranberry products.
The rest of the crop is dry harvested with a picking machine, which resembles a large lawn mower. Although this method is less efficient, growers receive a higher price for dry harvested fruit. These cranberries usually are packaged and sold as fresh whole berries in grocery stores.
Berries can be stored in their original container in the refrigerator for up to a week or washed and frozen in a freezer container for later use. They do not need to be thawed before using them in a recipe.
In addition to the traditional jelly or sauce, cranberries can be used for pies, muffins, quick breads, puddings, and sherbets. Cranberry juice, both regular and sugar-free, has become a popular drink in recent years.
So, when you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal this year, add another prayer of thanks for those long-ago settlers who helped make cranberries a holiday tradition.