Monday, November 22, 2010

Meatless Monday: Celebrating the Cranberry

On this particular Monday it seems only fitting to blog about the cranberry, a seasonal fruit which graces nearly every Thanksgiving table, traditional or vegan. Native to North America, this fruit was originally known as the “craneberry,” so named because the plant’s small blossoms reminded the colonists of the head and bill of a Sandhill crane.

For years before the Pilgrims landed on the shores of what is now Massachusetts, Native Americans had been crushing this wild berry for use as a fabric dye, as a medicine to treat arrow wounds, and in a high-protein food called “pemmican,” which was composed of cranberries, dried deer meat, and melted fat.

The cranberry requires several special conditions to thrive (all found on Cape Cod and in southeastern Massachusetts): sandy soil, abundant fresh water, and a growing season that lasts from May to October. When the Pilgrims arrived in the 1600s, the cranberry was growing wild on low-lying vines in beds layered with sand, peat, gravel, and clay-like material. Known as “bogs,” these beds were originally formed by glacial deposits. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Association website, in 1816 Captain Henry Hall of Dennis observed that the wild cranberries in his bog grew better when sand blew over them. He began sanding his vines, his technique was copied, and the cultivation of cranberries began.

The inspiration for this post came about one very hot day last summer when I learned from a tourist pamphlet that the Harwich Historical Society Brooks Academy Museum was Stop 7 on the Massachusetts Cranberry Trail. Harwich is just one town over from Chatham where we stay and this looked to be a great way to escape the mid-day sun. Harwich’s Captain Alvin Cahoon is credited with producing the first cranberry crop for commercial sale, and Harwich was the center of a thriving network of small independent cranberry farms for a number of years. The museum is located in historic and picturesque Harwich Center, and the exhibits were staffed by enthusiastic volunteers eager to talk about cranberries to interested visitors. It features a large collection of pictures and artifacts (including a working model railroad display) related to the history of cranberry culture in the Harwich area. We learned that the school year was tailored to accommodate the cranberry harvest, that cranberries can be harvested in either of two ways — wet or dry, and that in winter the bogs are flooded with water that freezes and protects the vines from drying out (among many other facts). It was a great way to spend a leisurely hour or two: there is much information on the museum website if you can’t make the trip.

Fall is the harvest time for this fruit. The other 8 stops listed on the Cranberry Trail map are working farms on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal. Many of the farms offer tours; some sell Christmas trees. Most growers use Integrated Pest Management, but Cranberry Hill in Plymouth, is an organic farm which sells its products online. (Be warned, at Whole Foods on Saturday, organic cranberries were selling at 2x the cost of conventional ones.) Some 14,000 of the 47,000 acres of land devoted to the cranberry industry are in Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that Wisconsin has bested Massachusetts as the industry leader since 1995.

Cranberries are high in vitamin C; in fact, sailors carried them on voyages to prevent scurvy. They are also purported to prevent and treat urinary tract infections, one of the reasons cranberry juice is such a popular drink. Dried and sweetened, cranberries are a tasty snack. They can also be baked into breads and pies, turned into compote, and added to stuffing and jello molds. But far and away their most common use is in cranberry sauce. 

Now for the recipe…
Many of us grew up thinking cranberry sauce came in a can, that you could cleverly get out in one piece by opening the can at both ends and gently, slowly, pushing the contents onto a plate for carving. This jelly-like substance is fine, but once you taste homemade sauce, with its vibrant flavor, I predict you won’t return to the canned product. Cranberry sauce is one of the easiest things to make. Every bag of fresh berries has a recipe printed on the back. The recipe goes: Dissolve 1 cup sugar in one cup water over medium high heat. When it boils, add the 12 oz bag of berries. Turn heat down to medium, stir often until all berries have popped. Remove from heat and cool. After your initial success, feel free to experiment.

Here is my most recent variation on the traditional recipe:

(pictured above)
Peel and cut into small pieces 2 medium apples (2 different kinds if you have them, ideally one being a golden delicious).
Dissolve 3/4 cup sugar in 1 cup orange juice.
When it boils, stir in one 12 oz package of cranberries along with
1/2 cup dried cranberries and the apple pieces.
Turn heat down. Stir occasionally until all berries have popped.
Remove from heat.
Add 1/2 teaspoon orange extract.

For many more recipes, check out the Ocean Spray website.

More trivia:
Since this is a Green Blog, I have to mention the “Great Cranberry Scare of 1959.” In November of that year, just before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur Fleming started a national panic by announcing that cranberries should be avoided because some had been found to be contaminated with the weed killer, Aminotriazole, that had been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Despite the best efforts of both presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon, who consumed large amounts of cranberry sauce and juice in front of news cameras, the damage to the cranberry industry was devastating. Schools threw cranberry products away, restaurants took them off the menu, and consumers refused to buy them. In fact, only one half of one percent of the 1959 crop, all of it from Oregon and Washington, was actually contaminated. The government’s $10 million compensation plan came too late for many growers. It took years for the industry to recover, but recover it did. The Cape Cod Times reported in 2009, “Cranberries are the No. 1 agricultural product of Massachusetts. The state produces over two million barrels a year, adding over $100 million to the state economy.”

And finally:
Whether you visit the Harwich Historical Society in person or online, take time to learn about this special and surprising “extra.” Two years ago tomorrow, Harwich was the subject of a CNN news story. A woman walking a trail in the conservation land in the town discovered a Baldwin piano, in tune and in good condition, with a piano bench nearby, as if someone had been planning to sit down to play. The mystery has never been solved, but the piano now calls the museum “home.”

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I see now what I've been doing wrong. I was planting the empty Ocean Spray cans! I'm going to have to rethink my approach.