Dot’s Reading Room: Cranberries – What’s Your Preference?

November 13, 2023

It’s time to get serious about cranberries, without which no Thanksgiving dinner table would be complete. Perhaps The Citizen should run a poll: are you a jellied-cranberry-right-out-of-the-can person or do you have a favorite recipe starting from scratch with a bag of cranberries?  

Cranberries have a long and interesting history. Although they were “domesticated” only about 200 years ago, writes Serina DeSalvio, Ph.D. Candidate in Genetics and Genomics, Texas A&M University, in a recent issue of “The Conversation,” people were eating them long before that.

DeSalvio writes: 

“Compared to many valuable plant species that were domesticated over thousands of years, cultivated cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a young agricultural crop, just as the U.S. is a young country and Thanksgiving is a relatively new holiday. But as a plant scientist, I’ve learned much about cranberries’ ancestry from their botany and genomics.

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“Humans have cultivated sorghum for some 5,500 yearscorn for around 8,700 years and cotton for about 5,000 years. In contrast, cranberries were domesticated around 200 years ago – but people were eating the berries before that.

“Wild cranberries are native to North America. They were an important food source for Native Americans, who used them in puddings, sauces, breads, and a high-protein portable food called pemmican – a carnivore’s version of an energy bar, made from a mixture of dried meat and rendered animal fat and sometimes studded with dried fruits. Some tribes still make pemmican today, and even market a commercial version.”

The bag of cranberries you buy in the supermarket today may have come from one of several states. Of course, we New Englanders think only of the Cape Cod bogs, but Wisconsin produces roughly 60 percent of the U.S. cranberry harvest, followed by Massachusetts, Oregon, and New Jersey. Cranberries also are grown in Canada, where they are a major fruit crop.

Cultivation in Massachusetts began in 1816 when a Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall found that covering cranberry bogs with sand fertilized the vines and retained water around their roots. From there, the fruit spread throughout the U.S. Northeast and Upper Midwest.

Why are cranberries so closely associated with Thanksgiving? It’s a practical matter: fresh cranberries are ready to harvest from mid-September through mid-November, just in time for the big Thanksgiving dinner. You can enjoy cranberry sauce with many other main dishes (they are perfect with roast pork), but the acidic sauce is a perfect foil for the bland turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy on most tables. Cranberry sauce first appeared in a cookbook in 1796.

To learn more about the genetics of cranberries, here is a link:

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