Berry Good

We ate cranberries today. Everyone in America ate cranberries today. Anyway, mostly everyone ate them. There may be one or two out there who won’t even take a bite but Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without some kind of cranberry concoction gracing the harvest table.

I wonder about cranberries. I’d like to meet the first person who looked at a squatty bush and decided that the berry it held might be something good to eat. What did they think when they took that first bite?

“Oh yikes, this is too sour! Maybe we should mix lots of them with handfuls of sugar and boil the whole mess until the berries burst. Then they’ll certainly be good to eat.” 

And what about that sugar? Did they have sugar hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago? I don’t think they did, not in the wilds of what we know as New England…..or anyway, not the refined sugar we enjoy today. What did they have to make that sour berry sweet? Did that person then look at the tall tree with the yellow leaves and think, “Aha! I bet that tree has something for my cranberries. I’ll just drill a hole in the bark, hang a pail and let the juice from the pulp drip out.”

Hmm, I wonder…..Nope. That’s not the answer. Someone did grab one of those little guys and take a tentative first bite. Who it was and when, we just don’t know. But we do know it is a food uniquely American and the first taste had to happen here.

Cranberries are native to the Americas, specifically the Northeast, were eaten by Native Americans and those indigenous people did introduce the berry to the newly arrived Europeans. But the cranberry relish we eat today is not how the Pilgrims used this food. Instead, the early settlers took their new cranberry friend (which they called craneberry) and mixed them into stews—most likely venison, game and squash—-and fire-roasted breads, much like their helpful Wampanoag neighbors.

It would take another two hundred years, when the cranberry went into commercial production and refined sugar was easy to get, for the cranberry to turn into the jellied, canned, orange flavored bowl of wiggly sweet goodness we all ate today.

Now, I have to add, the Pilgrims did not have Thanksgiving. They did eat with Squanto and some of his tribesman after their first harvest because the Native Americans came bearing game. They dined together several times over a period of days. But it was certainly no celebration. The stuffy Puritans weren’t into holidays or anything festive and had even quit doing anything special for Christmas or Easter other than going to church.

The earliest attested Thanksgiving in America was instead at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. The first officially proclaimed Thanksgiving was celebrated by English settlers at Berkley Plantation, Virginia in 1619 (a full two years before the Plymouth settlers, who eventually disappeared). The Charter of Berkeley Plantation specified the Thanksgiving service: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Ordained, certified and official, the earliest tables most like had sweet potatoes, probably a roasted wild turkey, definitely lots of beer. There were definitely no cranberries. It was too far south.

Mother’s Cranberry Relish

1  12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries

¾ cup of sugar

¾ cup of water

1 cinnamon stick

1 small orange cut into bite size pieces, skin left on, stem removed

½ cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans

 Method

  • Put cranberries, sugar, water and cinnamon stick into a deep pot
  • Stir to combine
  • Set over medium high heat and bring to a gentle boil
  • Lower heat and boil gently (uncovered) until the berries burst
  • Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts and orange
  • Cool to room temperature, then remove cinnamon stick.
  • Cover and refrigerate overnight or until set
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