Holiday Handbook


With Thanksgiving just a week away, family cooks are planning dinner menus, shopping for ingredients and baking.

While turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie are Thanksgiving Day dinner table staples, sitting next to them is usually a dish containing cranberries.

What are these berries that earned the right to a spot on the Thanksgiving Table? Where do they grow?

Cranberries ripen in the fall. Therefore, it makes perfect sense they would have been included in holiday meals before refrigeration. Plus they are naturally coated with a waxy substance which acts as a preservative to keep them fresh for several weeks, some say possibly up to five months. Their red coloring would have been a perfect festive addition to the holidays.

Stories have noted Indians presented Pilgrims with cranberries on the first Thanksgiving but this is seeped with controversy. Historians believe the berries would have been too bitter to eat without sugar. In 1621, sugar would have been a rare luxury.

The website noted one of the first recorded recipes is from a book penned in 1672 by John Josselyn, stating “The Indians and English use them much, boyling [sic] them with sugar for Sauce to eat with meat…”

Elizabeth Raffald’s “The Experienced English Housekeeper”, published in 1769 gives these directions for preserving cranberries, “Get your cranberries when they are quite dry, put them into dry clear bottles, cork them up close and set them in a dry cool place.”

The bitter berry is very versatile in foods but its use is not limited to just eating.

Cranberries were reportedly used by Indians for a poultice for healing wounds because in their raw state, they have an astringent effect that reduces bleeding. Cranberry poultices were also used to draw poison away from arrow wounds. Naturally high in vitamin C, barrels of cranberries were kept on ships to help prevent scurvy. Indian women also used juice from cranberries to dye blankets and rugs.

The earliest American Christmas trees in the 1840s were decorated with homemade ornaments of fruits, nuts, candies and strings of cranberries and popcorn garland.

The Cranberry in America

According to the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, they learned of the edible berry called “ibimi” from the Pequot Indians, who mixed the berries with dried venison and fat to make pemmican, a long-lasting portable fast food. Historians believe the Pilgrims would have come in contact with a similar berry before landing at Plymouth. A smaller version of the cranberry had been growing wild in bogs and marshes of England, northern Europe and Siberia. In England, the berry was known as marshberry or bog berry. In the language known as Low German (used in the Netherlands where the Pilgrims lived), it was called kranebeere meaning crane-berry because its blossom is thought to resemble the head and bill of a crane. The larger New England berries were exported to England before 1686 and soon both the large and small berries became known as the cranberry.

In 1816, Henry Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran and Cape Cod sea captain, noticed a larger number of berries grew on bushes where the soil was covered with sand. He figured out that acidic soil, sand and fresh water were necessary to grow cranberries.

By the 1840s, cranberries had become commercialized on Cape Cod which coincided with the increasing affordability of granulated sugar.

Cranberries were exported by the barrel to Virginia and other colonies to the south. Nearly every issue of Williamsburg’s “Virginia Gazette” lists “all ships which have entered inwards in the Upper District of the James River” or arrived at ports near the city and describes the goods they imported. The months of November, December, and January are full of references to cranberries. “Imported December 5 on the Sparrow from Boston,” reads a typical announcement, “5 barrels of Cranberries” along with “3 dozen chairs, casks of Madeira, axes, salt, chocolate, pickled codfish, cheese, fish, apples, and beer.” The cranberry shipments typically originated in Boston or Salem.

Today, some of the Cape Cod bogs are still owned by people who inherited them through the generations. And because cranberry bushes can live for generations, some on Cape Cod are said to date 150 years to the original plantings.