With the pleasant sweet tartness of this hard bright red berry known and loved the world over, it's hard to imagine that they are such new comers to the world stage. In fact, they were completely unknown out of their native ranges until the east coast was first pushed into by English settlers what is now known as Virginia in the 16th century. It is commonly assumed that it was the "pilgrims" in what is now known as New England that "discovered" cranberries here in the New World, in fact it was amongst the Powhatan further south . This despite that the most commercially farmable type of the berry Vaccinium oxycoccos is known as a "top of the world" food that is found all over the region in North America, northern Europe and Asian Siberia, even northern Japan. Now, thanks (or rather no thanks to) largely to huge corporations in the juice business, there is hardly a place on the globe that doesn't have cranberry of some sort!
In parts of the world, other than the New World, they were harvested and used locally, they were particularly used in the northern parts of Scandinavian countries as a tart sauce for pancake, and the northern regions of Russia as a strictly local filling for blintzes. They were at one time harvested and popular traditional Scottish food; that is until, sadly, their habitat was destroyed. It is probably from here that the original English name for the fruit, Fenberry, came. Fen is just another name for marsh, and the most wide spread and largest of these berries grew in marshy situations world wide. Other names for them included "mossberry" in Canada, which some think derives from "mooseberry," as moose where known to swim to get at them. Our word cranberry originally comes from "Crane Berry," supposedly because the flowers resemble the beak of a crane. I have no idea whether cranes indigenous to Cape Cod also ate the berries, like moose did.
|A partially submerged cranberry bush in bog|
Modern farming and harvesting follows old traditional methods of gathering these berries in the fall. There is a dry harvest and a wet one--there always has been, even when they were hand picked and "wheeled" to storage, or market. Throughout the first half of the 20th century the local Cape Cod Wampanoag able bodied men would take off from the regular jobs to work on the cranberry harvest, because the pay was so much higher than there regular wage. Machinery put a end to this practice in the later half of the 20th century, with mechanized harvesters that could do in a day what would take several men weeks in older times. But still now, as in ancient times, there is that dry and wet harvest. The dry harvested berries are the ones that we encounter starting around this time in bags in the produce section, or year round in the frozen food aisle. The wet harvested berries, which make up the bulk of the harvest, are not suitable to sell fresh in bags, so they go into the processed stuff: juice, cranberry sauces (whole and jellied) and other cranberry products including "Crasins" and supplements. Mashpee Wampanoag elder Earl Mills Sr. aka Chief Flying Eagle, has a cookbook out with Betty Breen entitled Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook that has a LOT of local Wampanoag recent history and stories about enduring in a place that people think the Indians had been killed off centuries ago. One of the best section in the book is "Cranberries (Sassamenesh)" which give a great deal of information of the last of the Mashpee "wheelers", local bog owners interaction with local Indians and the coming of the machines. In is informative, touching and definitely worth a read.
|Blossoms with immature green berries|
The nutritional and medicinal properties are pretty well known. More so than most food because of there reputation for being super high in vitamin C and because for decades that have been a traditional treatment alternative to anti-biotics in treating urinary tract infections. They are also a significant source of manganese and a great source of fruit fiber. Recently, they have been confirmed to have a large number of "micro-nutrients." Traditional Native American use of them in medicines include the above internal use, and as a poultice for wounds to keep them from getting infected. It should be noted that the use of them for medicinal reasons is with the unsweetened type. Either raw berries, unsweetened juice or powdered in gelatin capsules.
While cranberries are a widely consumed food/beverage in this country, only about 5% is sold fresh or frozen raw. That means that the vast majority of cranberry that gets consumed are in food or beverages that are processed in some way; in some cases highly so. The most common kind of cranberry product that people think of when asked are the canned jellied and whole cranberry sauces that are sold around the holidays; but truthfully more juice is consumed by a long shot that any other form of cranberry product. Some people end up consuming the berries without even knowing it; in, for example, various types of granola bars and energy snacks. The juice industry is so large, that at present there at least 6 or 7 different juice combinations commonly found on supermarket shelves. Cranberry juice pairs up with common grape juice, apple juice, and less commonly, cherry, blueberry or pomegranate. The straight juice is a common ingredient in cocktails, both alcholic and non-alcoholic; indeed the oldest of these is called the Cape Codder, fitting since most Americans associate the fruit with that area of country. Probably the most famous is The Cosmopolitan.
The Wikipedia article on the subject mentions a lot of different uses for the cranberry in it's processed form beyond just the canned stuff, and the bottles of juice, such as cranberry wines. Interestingly it fails to mention the Sam Adams brewery's use of the native berry in it's seasonal Cranberry Lambic. For those unfamiliar with what a 'lambic' is--it's fruit beer. It is available starting this time of the year.
|Wet harvesting cranberries|
For use in cooking, the traditional homemade version of cranberry sauce it turns out is about as traditional and old as it gets in the Native American kitchen. As a sauce for meat and fowl, it is mentioned several times in English chronicles dating from the 1500's. The traditional way to sweetened them was with honey or maple. They were commonly served by natives with venison or turkey. Maple was also used to "sugar" the berries as a kind of candy. They were also commonly dried to keep and in this state often went into pemmicans, some of which was made with dried fish, instead of dried meats. They were also tossed into stews. They can be made into Wojapi which is a Siouan fruit pudding or topping and goes well on Frybread. In the modern Wampanoag communities, they are often made into a pie that taste a great deal like mincemeat, except that it is bright red. They also can go into fried pies
So far this harvest season, a lot of Native American territory has been covered, one glaring omission so far is the Pacific Northwest. Well, though most people associate the cranberry with the east coast in general and New England in particular, but truthfully there are many native cranberry dishes from the northwest, many of them distinctive and quite delicious. The types of cranberry that they have differs slightly from the east, but there flavor is essentially the same. The highbush cranberries that they do have are not as numerous or productive, which probably accounts for dishes like Cranberry Fritters, which is a sweet dough with one single berry pushed into the middle and fried. They are also a lot more likely to mix these tart berries with fish and fish products, like fish oil. After all, they are The People of the Salmon! Salmon Cakes with Dried Cranberries may not sound like a very appetizing combo, but trust me, it is!
In the home kitchen, cranberry are most often used in baking in some way or another. Originally they went into native cornbreads. These days they show up in quick bread, steamed puddings, scone, crisps, muffins, cakes, cookie, bars, even the local Brown Bread. More patient home cooks make them into compotes, relishes, homemade jelly, jams and conserves. It is a common ingredient in regional gelatin salads as well. They can also flavor vodkas and liqueurs. It also flavors vinegars nicely and makes a nice vinaigrette for salads. Turkey and Cranberry Salad is one good way to use Thanksgiving leftovers. Around the holiday the juice is mulled and over summer is is frozen and floated on punches. It flavors teas, especially black teas and it put into native potpourris. Cranberry scent is used in seasonal candles as well. It also makes a great sorbet. One little red berry really does have a whole world of uses!