The cranberry is native to North America, specifically New England, and was found to be a food staple of the Native Americans. The Narragansett people used cranberries in pemmican, a nutrient-dense, high-energy food, and also as a dye. But it’s unlikely that cranberry sauce made its way onto the table during the first Thanksgiving celebration. Cranberries were not mentioned in the primary sources of the Thanksgiving Meal, which did reference corn, wild turkey and venison.
After the European colonists arrived, they learned much about their environment from the natives of the area. The American cranberry was completely foreign to these settlers but they quickly grew fond of the small red fruit. They developed a wide range of uses for the cranberry, including some of their own culinary traditions. The first recipe for cranberry sauce appeared in 1796 in The Art of Cookery, the first known cookbook by Amelia Simmons. Cranberry sauce was first offered to consumers in 1912 in Massachusetts, and in 1941 it appeared in the markets and was sold year-round. It was then that cranberry sauce began to be integrated into meals involving turkey, pork, chicken and ham.
The cranberry is a unique fruit that can only grow and survive with a special combination of acid peat soil, adequate fresh water, and a growing season from April to November. The vines thrive in conditions found in the wetlands, which provide a natural sponge-like mechanism that helps store and purify the water and maintain the water table. Cranberries grow in marshes layered with sand, peat and gravel and are typically harvested in the fall as the fruit takes on a deep red color that indicates ripeness. Berries that don’t fully mature maintain a white or pale pink color and are used in the production of white cranberry juice.
As of 2017, the world production of cranberries was measured at 625,181 tons with the United States, Canada and Chile accounting for 97% of the global market. Wisconsin and Quebec alone produce most of North America’s cranberries, with Massachusetts following closely behind.
From a nutritional perspective, raw cranberries are 87% water, 12% carbohydrate and are rich in fiber, vitamin C, E, K, manganese, and copper. Raw cranberries, cranberry juice and cranberry extracts are good sources of phytochemicals and contain antioxidant properties that help protect the body from oxidative damage and ultimately lower the risk of chronic diseases.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a dominant vitamin contained in cranberries. It is predominantly known for its ability to boost the immune system. It’s essential for maintenance of skin, muscle and bone health. Manganese, though not well-known to the public, has strong antioxidant properties and is essential for our growth and metabolism. Vitamin K is an essential nutrient involved in the maintenance of proper blood clotting.
Cranberries, along with several other quality foods, have become popular necessities on our winter holiday menus. But grandma’s special cranberry sauce shouldn’t only be available over Thanksgiving and Christmas! Here are some recipes that may entice you to make more meals throughout the year that include cranberries!