Why cranberry sauce for thanksgiving?
Individual family traditions and multicultural renditions aside, the classic Thanksgiving table tends to look pretty similar across America: a giant roast turkey surrounded by mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, and, of course, cranberry sauce.
Whether you prefer canned or fresh, Americans have pretty much unanimously decided that we wait until November to nosh on this sweet and tart side dish. But where did the tradition come from?
Cranberries — along with concord grapes and blueberries — are widely known as the only commercially grown fruits native to the United States. So if you're going to pick a fruit to represent the American harvest, this is it.
While we can't know for sure what exactly was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving (despite what your elementary school teacher may have told you), there are records of the Pilgrim governor Willam Bradford sending four men on a "fowling mission," which could have meant hunting for turkey, goose, duck, or swan, according to the History Channel.
Other than that, we can only speculate as to what was on the menu. Native Americans were known to eat cranberries regularly and use them as a natural dye for clothing, so chances are they were found on Thanksgiving Day, 1621. But sweetened cranberry sauce was not an invention until later.
Even if cranberries were natural found in the Americas, it could not be sweetened. The first Americans brought over sugar cane, but couldn't figure out how to make it grow in the alien soil until nearly 50 years later, according to the History Channel.
Reports of the original Native American cranberry sauce recipes — made simply with sugar and water — date back as far as the mid-to-late 17th century, and by the 18th century, cranberry sauce was a known accompaniment to game meat like turkey.
The first acknowledgment of a cranberry sauce recipe can be found in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, which calls for serving roast turkey with "boiled onions and cranberry-sauce," according to The Washington Post.
By the early 19th century, farmers were dry-harvesting cranberries from vines, which was a difficult and arduous process. It wasn't until Ocean Spray reinvented the cranberry game in the 1930s by introducing the wet harvest — known by the popular image of farmer standing up to his waist in a cranberry-topped bog — that cranberries became more commercially viable.
Instead of having many workers pick the cranberries off vines on dry land, it only takes several people to wait until the cranberries float to the surface of the flooded bog to scoop up the crop.
Canned cranberry jelly actually came about as a solution to a common problem with the finicky nature of cranberry harvests: the modern method of mechanical harvesting can often damage the delicate, tart berries, leaving them too imperfect to sell.
Whether you prefer your cranberries cooked with water and sugar into a sauce, raw in a relish, or from a can, adding cranberries to your Thanksgiving plate allows you to partake in one of the oldest Thanksgiving traditions. Here's what we know about its origins.
A native North American fruit, cranberries grow mostly in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. It's debatable whether or not there were cranberries at the first Thanksgiving. While not much is known about the food consumed by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe during the 1621 harvest celebration, it likely included deer instead of turkey, plus corn and shellfish.
As sugar wasn't widely available at the time, it's doubtful that cranberry sauce as we know it today was served at the dinner. But cranberries may have played some sort of role, as the Wampanoag tribe used the fruit for a variety of things—including dye, medicine, and food.
If the Pilgrims and the Native Americans ate cranberries at that festival, it was probably in the form of pemmican, a dish of crushed cranberries and dried meat. In the years that followed, the dish evolved and it wasn't long before cranberries became a popular ingredient among the settlers.
In the 1800s, Americans began farming cranberries and what is now known as dry harvesting (which entails picking the cranberries by hand). It was time-consuming and hard work, but this is the same process used to pick the fresh cranberries you see at the supermarket.
In the early 1900s, someone realized that flooding the bogs where cranberries grew loosens the berries from the vines until they fall off and float to the surface. Known as wet harvesting, this is quicker and less laborious than dry harvesting. At about the same time, Ocean Spray began selling those cans of cranberry sauce that you might have grown up with as a Thanksgiving tradition.
There are reports of what we consider traditional cranberry sauce—which requires stewing the cranberries in water and sugar—dating back to the 1630s. By the 1860s, cranberry sauce was so ingrained as an American dish, that General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly ordered that cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their Thanksgiving meal.
Whichever cranberry recipe you end up eating on Thanksgiving, it just might be the most venerable dish on your menu.
Ready for more cranberries? Watch how to make Sweet-and-Spicy Cranberry Sauce:
They might be the most polarizing figure at Thanksgiving.
Some folks might prefer them straight from the can, as a gelatinous cylinder bearing the ridges of the vessel from whence it came. Others might prefer them as a fresh relish or sauce, while others might forego a serving of them altogether.
No matter what form cranberries take, the tart fruit has become a standard part of many Thanksgiving dinners.
The cranberry has become nearly as ubiquitous with the holiday dinner as the avian star of the show. While only playing a supporting role, the fruit side dish has been a part of the cast for centuries, bringing along its ancient history and story of culinary evolution to the table.
Cranberries are native to North America, particularly in states like Massachusetts.
"For thousands of years, they've been growing here naturally along the dunes and in small wetland areas in the region," said Brian Wick, the executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association in Massachusetts.
According to Wick, cranberry vines are a resilient perennial plant capable of growing for decades and sometimes for over a century.
This resilience and other helpful properties helped make the plant – and its berries – useful to humans for many years.
In particular, cranberries were important for the indigenous people, who used them for various purposes, such as medicine and as a dye in their clothing.
Cranberries were also an integral part of life as a food source. For instance, cranberries were mixed with meat and fat as a way to help extend the shelf life of the meat.
The indigenous people then introduced the cranberry to the English pilgrims when they arrived in North America. According to Wick, they helped the pilgrims understand what cranberries were and how to use them.
Cranberries were later featured at a large meal shared between the two groups — a meal that later became known as the first Thanksgiving dinner.
The origin of our modern Thanksgiving holiday is a feast that occurred in 1621 in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, according to Plimoth Patuxet Museums director of special projects Kate LaPrad.
English Governor William Bradford called for this feast to be organized after a successful corn harvest — one that was largely aided by an alliance of peace with Massasoit, the leader of the indigenous Pokanoket Tribe.
The meal they shared is known as the Harvest Feast.
"When we talk about the Harvest Feast, I think it's important to understand that these two groups of people at the time, in the fall of 1621, are very much allies," LaPrad said. "These were two groups of people who, at that moment, were both trying to do what they thought was best for the survival of their people."
According to LaPrad, the Harvest Feast involved three days of playing games and recreation, along with feasting on a variety of foods that were available in the region in the fall.
Some of the foods they ate included items the colonists brought from England, such as cabbage, carrots and turnips. They also feasted on foods that were native to the region, such as pumpkin, squashes and corn.
Also making an appearance at the dinner: the American cranberry.
Like many people who have their first taste of cranberries, the English colonists noted the strong flavor of the tiny berries.
"In what I've seen in the writings from the period of the pilgrims and beyond, there is reference to the tartness of the cranberry," Wick said. He noted that the Native people even had a term for the berry that translated to "bitter berry."
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To help offset some tartness in the fruit, both the Native Americans and pilgrims used maple, honey and other natural sweeteners to make the cranberries more palatable.
According to Wick, the tart fruit became popularly used to create cranberry sauce for turkey and other types of meat in the late 17th century. Within a hundred more years, cranberry sauce became a staple dish in the U.S., with its popularity taking off even more throughout the 19th century.
In the early 20th century, the first cranberries were put into metal cans, Wick said. Developed to help preserve a range of foods, canning was also used to help prolong the shelf life of cranberries and cranberry sauce.
This innovation also helped lead to another culinary development: green bean casseroles. Often made from a can of cream of mushroom soup, the green bean casserole is a relatively modern addition to the Thanksgiving menu.
"It was developed in 1955 by someone in the Campbell's test kitchen," LaPrad said. "It wasn't initially thought of as a celebratory holiday food — it was really thought of as a way to make cooking a little bit easier for housewives."
Today, the legacy and importance of cranberries have remained strong, especially in Massachusetts, where the first Thanksgiving dinner was hosted 400 years ago.
Cranberry sauce or cranberry jam is a sauce or relish made out of cranberries, commonly served as a condiment or a side dish with Thanksgiving dinner in North America and Christmas dinner in the United Kingdom and Canada. There are differences in flavor depending on the geography of where the sauce is made: in Europe it is generally slightly sour-tasting, while in North America it is typically more heavily sweetened.
The recipe for cranberry sauce appears in the 1796 edition of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first known cookbook authored by an American.
In 1606, the Mi'kmaq people introduced the French settlers in Port Royal, Nova Scotia to Cranberries. They would have been sweetened with maple sugar and served at the settlers first Thanksgiving in North America that year. The settlers described eating what they called “small red apples" in letters send back to France. Port-Royal reports contained menus describing cranberries. They are still called “pommes de prés”, or meadow apples, today in Acadia.
Although the Pilgrims may have been aware of the wild cranberries growing in the Massachusetts Bay area, it is unlikely that cranberry sauce would have been among the dishes served at the First Thanksgiving meal. Cranberries are not mentioned by any primary sources for the First Thanksgiving meal. The only foods mentioned are "Indian corn", wild turkey and waterfowl, and venison. The rest remains a matter of speculation among food historians. Although stuffings are not mentioned in primary sources, it was a common way to prepare birds for the table in the 17th century. According to a "Thanksgiving Primer" published by the Plimoth Plantation, cranberries may have been used in the stuffing recipes, but it is unlikely they would have been made into a sauce because sugar was very scarce.
Cranberry sauce was first offered to consumers in North America in 1912 in Hanson, Massachusetts. Canned cranberry sauce appeared on the market in 1941, allowing the product to be sold year-round. Cranberry sauce can be used with a variety of meats, including turkey, pork, chicken, and ham.
Cranberry sauce is often eaten in conjunction with turkey for Christmas in the United Kingdom and Canada or Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada, and it is only rarely eaten or served in other contexts there.
The most basic cranberry sauce consists of cranberries boiled in sugar water until the berries pop and the mixture thickens. Some recipes include other ingredients such as slivered almonds, orange juice, orange zest, ginger, maple syrup, port, or cinnamon.
Commercial cranberry sauce may be loose and uncondensed, or condensed or jellied and sweetened with various ingredients. The jellied form may be slipped out of a can onto a dish, and served sliced or intact for slicing at the table.
Due to the importance of cranberries in the 1500s and their abundance, it is believed that the pilgrims and the American Indians would have eaten them at the first Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not actually grow in water. Cranberries grow on a low-growing, perennial vine.