Getting Bogged Down About Cranberries
Every once in a while, especially at this time of year, we see TV commercials featuring a guy in hip-waders standing waist-deep in what we’re told is a cranberry ‘bog,’ but appears to be the world’s largest, most unimaginative fruit salad. He tells us not only about the cranberry’s traditional place on the Thanksgiving board, but also of its remarkable health properties. If you’re like me, you’re wondering what kind of fruit grows in a lake, and what it has to do with buckled shoes.
It turns out, that these cranberry bogs are only wader-worthy during harvest time. Cranberries grow in sandy, marshy areas on long, low vines and were traditionally picked by hand. About 50 years ago, growers discovered that it was easier to gather the fruit if the bogs could be flooded. Because fresh cranberries have a small pocket of air inside them, they will float to the surface when shaken loose from their vines by a machine called an “egg-beater.” Once the berries have been shaken loose and floated up, they can be easily skimmed off the surface and harvested.
Next comes the selection process, when the good berries are separated from the bad and the ugly. The most basic way is simply to put the berries on a conveyor belt and toss out the bad ones as they pass. Larger operations turn to more mechanized solutions, including one that takes advantage of those little air pockets that were so helpful in the bog.
An early New Jersey grower, John Webb, had trouble carrying baskets of berries down a set of stairs because of his wooden leg. His solution, to pour the berries down the stairs, sparked a strange realization. The firm, fresh berries bounced further than soft, burst, or bruised berries. Today farmers use bounce board separators, essentially a set of stairs set at precise angles, to weed out damaged berries.
Another determinant of cranberry quality is color. In search of the brightest berries, some producers use a machine to shoot the fruit through the air and into collecting bins. A computerized color sensor then directs a series of air jets to fire when it ‘sees’ pale or discolored berries pass. The unworthy are blasted to the floor, while the chosen sail on to be pressed into juice, jellies, and many other cranberry products.
Which brings us to how this bright, bitter fruit ends up on our table every Thanksgiving. Native Americans were the first to use cranberries, making a survival food called pemmican by grinding the fruit with fat and ground venison. When this mixture was introduced to early settlers, including the Plymouth pilgrims, it spawned centuries of kitchen experiments and good eating. Cranberries are now used in several different ways to add color, flavor, and vitamins to the holiday feast.
And speaking of nutrients, Native Americans were the first on that beat as well, using the berries in health remedies and poultices long before modern dieters became concerned about anti-oxidants. Different tribes referred to the fruit as “sassamanesh,” “ibimi,” or “atoqua.” The English name was borrowed from German and Dutch settlers. They dubbed the crimson fruit ‘crane-berry,’ due to the shape of the vine’s flower, which resembled the head and bill of a crane.
The cranberry is commonly reported as one of only three fruits native to North America (blueberries and Concord grapes round out the list). It seems fitting that such a uniquely American food should have a starring role in a major American holiday, but the truth is somewhat more complicated. Our continent also originated prickly pears, huckleberries, and other more obscure edibles, as well as many sub-varieties of common berries and fruits.
For an interesting twist on the standard sauce, check out this family recipe.