Tainted love

Cranberry love

Cranberry love

Ever bite a raw cranberry? If your lips are squeezing into a pucker just reading that, then the answer is probably “yes”, that’s because cranberries are second only to lemons and limes in their acidity. Kind’a makes sense now doesn’t it?  It is that very tartness, which is the reason why cranberries balance out meals with sweet and savory flavors like turkey and venison.

The colorful cranberry has quite a bit of mythology surrounding it. For a tiny fruit that we eat about once a year, at one of our most nationally symbolic meals no less, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

For example, did you know that cranberries were NOT at the first Thanksgiving? Surely YOU have had some flourish of cranberry scrumptiousness at your Thanksgiving. But, contrary to popular folklore, we have no actual evidence that there were cranberries at the first Thanksgiving. Of course, if you were there, please let me know the actual menu. I am curious. Seriously.

Of course, Native Americans were enjoying cranberries long before the Pilgrims arrived. In fact, they were the first to use cranberries as a food. They thought cranberries had medicinal powers (they do) and used the red to dye their blankets and clothing. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of a glop of cranberry sauce on your clean white shirt on Thanksgiving, the dying tidbit shouldn’t be too much of a shock to you. As a matter of fact, it is that very pigment which prevents bacteria from adhering to various tissues in the human body…and that is why they really do prevent urinary tract infections.

Man, these cranberries are really "bogging" me down.

Man, these cranberries are really "bogging" me down.

Another notorious rumor about cranberries is that cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America. This isn’t actually true either. What IS true is that cranberries are one of three COMMERCIALLY viable fruits native to North America, the other two being the blueberry and the concord grape. Paw paw and Saskatoon are also native to North America. I thought Saskatoon was a city in Canada, but it turns out that is also a berry. Speaking of our brothers to the north, they often call cranberries by another name: moss berries.

The cranberry plant (originally called the craneberry plant for the graceful hanging of its vine) is thought to have originated in the Northeast. According to a Boston Globe article in 2006, some of the vines in Massachusetts actually date to the Pilgrims. Maybe we should ask those vines if cranberries were part of the original Thanksgiving?  But what’s really interesting is that the vast majority of our cranberries today hail from (drum roll please!) Wisconsin! Who knew? The new state slogan should be: Cranberries aren’t cheesy!

In fact, producing 60% of all cranberries makes Wisconsin the country’s largest producer. Other heavy production areas are the northeast and the northwest. About 95% of cranberries harvested are made into juices, sauce or dried cranberries…only 5% of those glorious babies are sold fresh. By the way, if you ever seen canned cranberry sauce, that drops to your counter with the rings from the can indented on the gelatinous goo and thought “that’s just not right” you weren’t that far off. The reason cranberries were originally canned was because a large 20th century producer wanted to find a use for its damaged cranberries.

I’ll leave you with that visual. Here’s to hoping you get some of the 5% of the fresh cranberries available to us this holiday season.

Wisconsin cranberry growers association harvesting hoopla

How cranberry bogs work (link to TLC Network)

(all images filched from the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association website)

BTW-Any other Thanksgiving food you’d particularly like to learn more about?

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.