The cranberry has a starring role in the agricultural history of Massachusetts and New England. It’s still a major crop in Mass., as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Maine and many other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. (Other states/provinces: don’t flame me ‘cuz I called them New England’s fall staple. I know you have them too. I just happen to live in New England!)
Around this time of year, the pea-sized red berries get a lot of attention. It’s harvest time, and a lot of folks drive the backroads of southeastern Mass., hoping to catch a glimpse of cranberries being harvested. And now’s the time that you start seeing fresh cranberries at the market, and of course Thanksgiving is sort of the Superbowl of cranberries.
There are four native species of cranberry in the genus Vaccinium, but it’s primarily the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) that causes all this fuss. Blueberries and huckleberries are also part of the Vaccinium genus, which is part of the Ericaceae family that also includes rhododendrons, azaleas, heaths, and heathers. Lest you think I’m a botanical Latin name-dropper, I’m mostly mentioning it to make the point that due to their shared Ericaceae heritage, all of these plants share the need for soil with a more acidic pH than other plants.
In the wild, V. macrocarpon prefer moist, swampy soils, which is why they are cultivated in bogs. They are low-growing and shrubby, nearly a groundcover, with pink flowers that bloom in summer and leathery, evergreen leaves. They are well-loved by all types of wildlife; honeybees and butterflies love their abundant nectar and birds love their berries.
Native inhabitants called them sassamanesh, ibimi, or atoqua. It was European settlers that first called them crane-berries either because (depending on which tale you believe) they are a favorite food of cranes or their flowers are shaped like a crane’s neck and head. The Natives saved European settlers from starving to death by teaching them how to mix dried cranberries and deer meat to make pemmican, sort of an early trail mix, and legend has it that cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving. (Yup–they cranked open a can and popped out a roll of can-shaped jelly, just like we do!!! Kidding.)
I do feel that cranberries are culinarily unappreciated–we seem to only eat them dried, or in muffins, juice, or the aforementioned can-shaped jelly–and even then only at Thanksgiving. There’s a world of ways to cook them, though…check out fellow blogger Geraldine’s cranberry “chip” cookies, which substitute dried crans for chocolate chips, or her recipe for cranberry mandarin Christmas loaf, a great substitute for fruitcake. And there’s a whole slew of recipes at the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association website, which has a lot of uses for fresh and frozen berries.
Where to get them? Support an organic farmer, and order fresh, frozen, or dried organic cranberries from Plymouth, Mass.-based Cranberry Hill Organic Farm’s online store.
More on cranberries in my next post, where I’ll write about cranberry farming methods. I’m hoping to visit some bogs this weekend, and if the photo gods are smiling, I’ll have some pictures.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Agricultural Research Service/USDA.