I nominate cranberries for the best supporting role in a holiday dinner.
Where would Thanksgiving be without them? Even if they are not the main attraction of the table, they are held in very high regard at my seasonal celebration.
It is no crime to play second fiddle to the turkey. Fred Astaire would be a wallflower without his partner.
Many others are also fond of these ruby-red gems. Cranberries have been one of the best parts of the meal for quite a long time. Native Americans introduced them to the colonists, who sent them back to be eaten and appreciated in Europe.
John Josselyn, in An account of Two Voyages to New-England Made during the Year 1638, wrote, “The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat; and it is a delicate sauce, especially for roasting mutton: Some make tarts with them as with Gooses Berries . . . . They usually eat of them put into a bason, with milk, and sweetened a little more with sugar and spice, or for cold stomachs, in sack. The Indians dry them in the sun, and sell them to the English by the bushel, who make use of them instead of currents, putting of them into puddens, both boyled and baked, and into water gruel.”
In 1722, Thomas More sent a package of plants and seeds from Boston to the English botanist Richard Sherard in London. The package included “craneberry in a bottle, a drunken rogue that will neither grow or keep without swimming in water: he makes the best tarts in the world and therefore highly valued among gluttons and epicures for his fine taste.”
Oliver Medgser, author of Edible Wild Plants, additionally noted, “the pilgrims learned from Indians how to prepare the fruits for the table. The berries kept so long without decay and were prized so highly by the colonists that, according to the early settlers of Mass., 10 barrels of them were shipped across the ocean as a gift to king Charles II.”
Closer to home, Wampanoags have been harvesting wild cranberries (sasumuneash in tribal language) for centuries. The second Tuesday in October marks Cranberry Day, a celebration of thanks for the year’s harvest.
To the botanist, rather than the epicure, cranberries are a creeping evergreen shrub found in wetlands, such as swamps, bogs, lowlands, and even behind dunes. A member of the heath family, these plants call blueberries, huckleberries and wintergreen relatives. The word cranberry comes from craneberry, named such because its flower resembles the head and beak of a crane. The cranberry’s scientific name, Vaccinium macrocarpon, brags of their “large fruit.”
This large fruit not only makes for delicious side dishes, sauces, juices, and muffins, it is also a healthy addition to your diet. Cranberries are very high in vitamin C and D, have antioxidants, and are generally good for what ails you. Best of all, according to Native American lore, if you get shot with a poison arrow, cranberries can draw poison from your wounds.
And while they may bring great health, cranberries probably won’t bring great wealth. Even so, there are those that have tried and continue to cultivate these berries for market. Our state led the way. Henry Hall is credited with being the first commercial cranberry grower, in 1816, in nearby Dennis. In Hanson, in 1912, the first commercial cranberry sauce was marketed. The cranberry tradition in Massachusetts continues.
Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Maine, New Jersey and Washington all have commercial cranberry industries, which produce more than 150 thousand metric tons of berries annually. Nationally, about 40,000 acres are harvested every year. Both Massachusetts and Wisconsin claim to be the top grower. I won’t dip into that bog, but will root for the home team.
The unbeatable team of turkey and cranberry sauce will remain in the top spot of traditions, year after year.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.