Cranberries are a staple on the American Thanksgiving table, but they used to be much more than a once-a-year novelty. They were a staple of Native American diets, and later, of early colonial diets.
The ways that cranberries have been grown and eaten have changed a lot over the centuries.
Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley tracked the history of the cranberry in North America in an episode of their Gastropod Podcast.
Cranberries were used by Native Americans in various ways, including in pemmican, a concentrated and nutritious food made of fat and protein, they reported.
“Kind of an early an early power bar, an early energy bar,” Graber told Living Lab Radio.
At that time, cranberries were something that you picked from wild bushes. But that changed.
“Even though cranberries are a native North American fruit, it was a British scientist, Joseph Banks, sort of a botanist, horticulturalist, scientist, researcher, who came up with the system for cultivating cranberries in these artificial bogs,” said Twilley.
It was the late 1700s when Banks came up with the idea of growing cranberries in sandy soil that the plant loves and then flooding the field to harvest the berries.
The idea didn’t catch on right away. It took until 1816, when Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall of Dennis, Mass., began spreading sand over cranberry plants. The popularity of cranberries really took off.
“People used to joke…that if you went to a New England home in the early 18th century or the 19th century, every corner on the on the table would have its own giant jar of cranberry sauce that people added to everything,” Twilley said.
Now we only tend to eat cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and Christmas, a trend that cranberry growers have tried to change. At one point, the growers tried to get people to serve cranberries on Father’s Day -- a trend that did not catch on.
“My favorite was…Ocean Spray had an advertising campaign and it was about a chicken that was in love with the cranberry,” Graber said. “And the point was that you should have cranberry sauce with your chicken.”
At the 1948 Massachusetts Cranberry Festival, Ocean Spray presented romantic poetry that the chicken supposedly wrote to the cranberry. Here is a sample:
What butter is to biscuits
What honey is to a bee
What syrup is to pancakes
Cranberry is to me
“It didn’t work, though,” Graber said.
The connection between Thanksgiving and cranberries remains strong, even without the use of poetry. Enjoy that tart sauce on Thursday.