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November 18, 2012

In praise of cranberries

“The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat, and it is a delicious sauce.” — from New-England Rarities Discovered, by John Josselyn; 1672.

Other than as a side dish, essentially a condiment to complement the turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner table, it seems to me Americans pay very little attention to cranberries, which is a real shame, considering the versatility, the health benefits and the history. They are loaded with vitamin C, keep wonderfully when frozen and can be used in breads, soups, teas, salads, desserts, stuffing and relishes.

Cranberries are certainly unique. They are a wetland fruit that grows on trailing vines, somewhat like strawberries. Natural cranberry beds are comprised of acid peat soil, sand and fresh water. A winter dormancy period is required to mature fruiting buds.

No one can say for certain whether or not cranberries were a part of the first Thanksgiving supper in Plymouth, but there is a strong likelihood that they were. The Pilgrims would have learned about them from the Native Americans, including the Cape Cod Pequots, who called them ‘ibimi (bitter berry) and used them as a staple; eating them fresh, ground, mashed, sweetened with maple sugar, baked into bread made with cornmeal and made into a sauce.

They also used cranberries to make “pemmican,” a winter mainstay made from berries, dried game meat (usually venison) and melted fat. Although the Indians used cranberry juice as a dye, there is debate about whether or not they actually drank cranberry juice. Raw cranberry juice is quite bitter and if it were served as a drink it is very likely that maple sugar and/or other juices would have been added, or it may have been diluted with water and a bit of maple sugar or honey.

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