Now I know better.
Throughout my childhood, I only recognized cranberries as that deep red gelatinous blob that came out of a can on Thanksgiving Day. I shouldn’t blame my mom; she was a product of her generation whose dogma was well articulated by Alistair Cook. He observed that “It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is uneatable without it.”
However, after many years of leaving cranberry sauce off my Thanksgiving menu, these beautiful berries have returned in full force to my holiday table. Thanks to cousin Sally, I can now wholeheartedly count myself as a reborn cranberry lover. Her recipe is a simple and delicious relish that has become my perennial favorite. I am likely relishing the leftovers as you read this!
It is not only the taste that keeps me coming back. Cranberries have been known for their healing properties for centuries, causing the Cranberry Growers Association to call them the “little red tart fruit that packs a big punch.”
Native Americans knew early on about their benefits and made a cranberry poultice to treat arrow wounds. American whalers and mariners ate these berries on long voyages to prevent scurvy, and now cranberries are hailed for their high levels of antioxidants and ability to prevent tooth decay!
Teeth, however, beware of those adulterated cranberry products! Only five to ten per cent of cranberries are eaten fresh. The others are processed into commercial juice, sauce, and snacks. While fresh cranberries have only 50 calories, the same amount of cranberry sauce packs a walloping 400 calories. Even worse may be the “juice cocktail,” which has been targeted to be banned in some schools. Not surprising when you learn that one 12-ounce bottle of cranberry juice cocktail contains 12 teaspoons of sugar, two more teaspoons of sugar than a regular Coke!
But before the cranberry growers come after me, know that I am a huge supporter of these luscious berries, even with sugar. And I always seek out the freshest and best quality berries.
You can do a simple test to determine the cream of the cranberry crop. Thank John Webb, the first recorded New Jersey grower, who noticed that good cranberries bounce. John had a wooden leg, so he couldn’t carry his cranberries down the stairs. Instead, he dropped them. Strangely enough, the firmest berries bounced to the bottom, but the rotten ones remained stuck on the steps. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that small pockets of air inside the berry cause the cranberry to bounce. The air is also the reason that berries float in water, and likely the reason they are also called bounceberries.
Cranberries are a source of pride in our area due to their strong role in our state’s history. Native Americans shared them with the Pilgrims, and settlers adopted them into their diet. They were first cultivated by Henry Hall in Dennis, MA, in 1816 and a commercial cranberry sauce was made by the Cape Cod Cranberry company in 1912. Our history of cranberry craziness continues with increased production and a large share of the market throughout the history of commercial cultivation.
However, hold your pride in check. The great Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been supplanted by Wisconsin as the current leader in cranberry production in the U.S.
With more than 14,000 acres of cranberries in cultivation in southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, it is hard to believe that we lost the cranberry crown. I can’t speak for my fellow citizens, but I know that for the cranberry, I will fight to the bitter end.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.