Crimson-colored cranberries offer a pleasing pop of color and tart, tangy taste to the holiday table. Aside from the traditional turkey, these inherently festive fruits might just be the most iconic Thanksgiving ingredient. They are, after all, more American than apple pie.
Centuries before European explorers arrived in North America, Native peoples were consuming wild cranberries, combining the crushed fruit with tallow and deer and other meats to make pemmican. Colonists called them “craneberries” for the resemblance their blooms have to the head of a sandhill crane. Eventually, “craneberries” became cranberries—and a colonial staple.
“They are excellent against the Scurvy,” John Josselyn wrote in his 1672 New England’s Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of That Country. “They are also good to allay the fervour of hot Diseases.” And, he noted, “The Indians and English use them much, (boiling) them with sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat; and it is a delicate Sauce, especially for roasted Mutton; Some make tarts with them as with Goose Berries.”
October, the height of harvest, is National Cranberry Month, but perhaps it should be November. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Americans consume nearly 400 million pounds of cranberries per year. Twenty percent, about 80 million pounds, occurs during the week of Thanksgiving, celebrated for the first time 400 years ago.
Large American cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) may or may not have been on the table. If they were, they most likely weren’t in the form of sweetened sauce. In November 1621, Pilgrims were still relatively new to cranberries and essentially out of sugar. Stores that had traveled across the Atlantic were nearly or completely depleted.
Cranberries were first cultivated in the early 1800s on Cape Cod. Washington state’s commercial cranberry industry wasn’t born until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Since the early 1920s, research from Washington State University has helped it flourish. Today, Washington cultivates some 1,800 acres of cranberries and ranks among the top five cranberry-producing states.
Year-round, per capita consumption is 2.3 pounds, nearly all in the form of juice. In fact, an overwhelming majority—95 percent—of cranberries are processed, mostly for juice but also for dried fruit and canned sauce. Just 5 percent of cranberries grown in the United States are sold fresh. Fun fact: the fresh ones float. And bounce. That’s because of four tiny air pockets inside the fruit. Technically, they are epigynous, or false, berries.
Marketed as “America’s original superfruit,” cranberries, close cousins of blueberries, are low in sugar and high in acidity. They’re also rich in antioxidants and vitamin C. And they’re good sources of A, K, E, and B-complex vitamins. Research has linked their nutrients to prevention of certain cancers as well as decreased blood pressure, improved immune function, enhanced oral health, and reduced urinary tract infection. Plus, they store well, lasting about a month in the fridge and year in the freezer.
Washington state’s industry, concentrated along the “Cranberry Coast” in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties, experienced slow growth between the late 1800s and early twentieth century. The fruit is finicky. Cranberries are difficult to grow. In the early 1920s, Washington State College sent plant pathology student Daniel James “DJ” Crowley to Long Beach to investigate the pests, weeds, and diseases affecting cranberry crops. He returned in 1923, establishing the Cranberry Research Station and serving as its superintendent for three decades. Early on, he proposed using overhead sprinklers to protect vines from frost, a practice growers were initially slow to adopt but is still widely used.
The Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation (PCCRF) purchased the station and 40 acres of farmland in the early 1990s, running the Cranberry Museum on the site. Another Cranberry Museum in Grayland explores the history of the Furford Picker/Pruner, which revolutionized harvest when it was invented in 1957 by picking berries while simultaneously pruning vines.
Wet harvest is used for cranberries that will be processed. Fresh ones are picked by small combines. Harvest season is six to eight weeks in September, October, and November. Or, just in time for the holidays.
That’s when Jamie Callison makes his favorite cranberry recipe: a simple sweetened sauce. The recipe is so easy that the executive chef at WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management at Carson College of Business recites it in a few sentences. “It’s basically the zest and juice of one orange, one cup of sugar, one cup of water, and one bag of cranberries,” Callison says. “You cook it all together until the cranberries start to pop, and you’re good to go. Sometimes, I’ll add a little Cointreau at the end, or Grand Marnier.”
Cranberries pair well with pork, chicken, beef, and—of course—turkey. Slather some sauce on day-after-Thanksgiving sandwiches. Swirl some into oatmeal. Or, serve some with brie or another soft, mild cheese. Callison pairs cranberry sauce with WSU-developed Cosmic Crisp® apples and WSU’s signature canned Cougar Gold sharp cheddar. “You need the fat from the cheese and the sweetness from the apple to balance it out,” he notes.
His other favorite uses are relishes for terrines and pâtes, chutneys for game meat such as deer and elk, and sugar-coated cooked whole fruits to decorate desserts. “Those little candied cranberries look amazing,” he says.
Dried cranberries add texture and a sweet-tart element to salads, such as shaved Brussels sprouts and kale with walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, or pecans. “One of our house salads is arugula, Cosmic Crisp apples, and dried cranberries,” Callison notes. Cranberries—dried, fresh, or frozen—are also great baked into muffins, scones, turnovers, and tarts.
Betsy Rogers (’89 Comm.) pairs them with Braeburn or Golden Delicious apples to make her mom’s cranberry-apple pie. “It was always something we had at Thanksgiving,” says Rogers, a personal chef in Seattle. She founded Ovens to Betsy twenty years ago, transitioning from public relations to doing what she loves more: cooking.
“I’ve always liked tart things, and I just love the taste of cranberries,” she says. “When I was little, I’d eat them straight from the freezer, just pop them in my mouth with no sugar or anything. I’m not sure I’d do that now. But it’s funny how cranberries are so associated with Thanksgiving. We really should do more with them all year.”
Cranberries by the numbers
US annual harvest
About 10.4 million barrels, or more than 1 billion pounds
Washington state annual harvest
Approximately 1,750 acres
About 148,000 barrels, or 14.8 million pounds
95 percent of Washington growers sell to Ocean Spray, which accounts for about 80 percent of raw cranberry purchases nationwide.