by Jean Stratton

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Cranberries Play a Starring Role In Holiday Feasts and Festivities

They're tart, tangy, and tasty, and in one form or another, they will appear on most dinner tables this Thursday – right along side the turkey.

Cranberries are a traditional Thanksgiving favorite, and sauces, relishes, chutneys, and juice are all part of the festive feast. Favorite recipes, often passed down from generation to generation, abound.

"I remember my mother making her special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas," notes a Princeton neighbor, "and of course, I have continued that tradition. I don't think the family would come to dinner if it weren't on the menu!"

Another friend makes her holiday cranberry sauce each year, and explains that the recipe for this traditional American dish was given to her by a neighbor from Canada.

"When we were first married and living in New York City, my neighbor from Toronto shared her cranberry recipe with me. Her name was Lorna, and to this day, her sauce is known as 'Lorna's Cranberry Sauce.' I make it each year and share it with friends and neighbors."

A Connecticut cook reports that her cranberry recipe was a big hit with friends last holiday season.


"I gave the neighbors apothecary jars filled with homemade (by me!) cranberry relish. I ground together whole, fresh cranberries, oranges (peels and all), and added a lot of Grand Marnier and a little sugar. Then I tossed in some coarsely chopped toasted pecans. This is a terrific hostess gift. Just tie the apothecary jar with red and green ribbon, and add a sprig of holly or other accent."

In some ways, the cranberry remains the down-to-earth American staple that is thought to have been part of the first American Thanksgiving dinner with the Pilgrims and Indians in 1621; in others, it has come a long way, baby!

Cranberries now flavor vodka, and are an ingredient in a variety of cocktails, liquers, and burgundy punch. Consider the "Cape Codder:" cranberry juice, vodka, and either a squeeze of orange or orange juice. Most recipes call for one part vodka to three parts cranberry juice.

The new white cranberry juice, with its slightly milder taste and spill-advantage, is a big seller. Cranberries are ingredients in muffins, breads, pancakes, pies and cakes, cereals, jellies, jams, honey, chutneys, relishes, stuffings, casseroles, salads, salsa, and even a mustard for dipping pretzels. Cranberry ice cream and chocolate-covered dried cranberries soothe the sweet tooth.

In keeping with its special place at the Thanksgiving table, the cranberry is authentically native American. It is one of three fruits indigenous to North America, including the blueberry and Concord grape. Its history is traced back to the earliest days of the country, when the colonists arrived from Europe – and before.

Long ago, the Lenni-Lenape Indians, a branch of the Algonquins, made their home in the river valleys of what is now south and central New Jersey. The first harvesters of the cranberry in the state, they used it for food, medicine, dyes, and as a sign of peace during tribal feasts.

Convenience Food

A favorite dish was "pemmican." The Indians mixed cranberries with venison, mashed it all together, shaped it into a cake, and dried it in the sun. They considered pemmican to be a convenience food because it remained fresh for a long time.

Cranberries were not known as "cranberries" until the German and Dutch settlers arrived in the colonies. They called them "crane berries" because, it is said, the blossoms on the vine resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Others have suggested that cranes liked to eat the berries.

"The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat and it is a delicious sauce," wrote John Josselyn, while visiting New England in 1663.

Another early written reference to cranberries was in a letter from Mahon Stacy, one of the first settlers in Burlington, N.J., to his brother in England, April 26, 1680.

"We have from the time called May until Michaelmas a great store of very good wild fruits as strawberries, cranberries, and hurtleberries. The cranberries, much like cherries for color and bigness, may be kept until fruit comes in again. An excellent sauce is made of them for venison, turkeys, and other great fowl and they are better to make tarts than either gooseberries or cherries. We have them brot to our homes by the Indians in great plenty."

It is believed that cranberry juice (a very popular item today) was first made by American settlers in 1683. (There are 4,400 cranberries in one gallon of cranberry juice).

Cranberry Bog

In the days before cranberries were cultivated, families would gather from miles around to pick the wild berries for their winter tables. But it was against the law to pick them before they were fully ripe. In 1789, the New Jersey legislature passed an act stipulating that anyone picking cranberries before October 10 would be fined 10 shillings.

Cultivation of cranberries was begun in Massachusetts in 1816 and in New Jersey in 1840, when John (Peg Leg) Webb established a cranberry bog in Ocean County. It is reported he received $50 per barrel. They were often bought by ship merchants who sold them to whalers. Cranberries were kept on shipboard in barrels of cold water for the sailors to eat. Containing vitamin C, the berries helped prevent scurvy, a plague to seafarers on long voyages.

Mr. Webb noticed a unique characteristic of cranberries: good cranberries (because of air pockets in the fruit) bounce! Due to his wooden leg, he couldn't carry the cranberries down the stairs, and dropped them instead. He soon realized that the firmest berries bounced to the bottom. The "bouncing" method is still used today to determine the top quality berries.

Elizabeth Lee, one of the early cranberry growers in southern New Jersey, usually threw out any damaged berries, but one day decided to cook them. She created a tasty sauce, which she began selling as "Bog Sweet Cranberry Sauce." Eventually, she merged her business with another and formed Ocean Spray, now headquartered in Massachusetts, and with a processing plant in Bordentown, N.J.

The plant borders on land once owned by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, Emperor of France. Joseph was the King of Spain and Naples during Napoleon's reign, but went to Bordentown for safety after his brother was dethroned.

An historic railroad also serves the plant. Established by the Camden and Amboy Railroad Company, it carried the first steam train in the state on November 12, 1831. The original locomotive, named John Bull, is now in the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C.

Third Largest

Today, New Jersey is the the third largest cranberry-producing state in the country, after Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Burlington, Atlantic, and Ocean Counties are the major cranberry-growing areas in the state. Chatsworth, in the Pinelands, is the site of the annual Cranberry Festival, which features exhibits, cranberry recipe contests, and cranberry memorabilia.

People can't seem to get enough cranberries – in all their variations. Estimated cranberry production in the U.S. in 2002 was 572 million pounds, and a big portion is made into juice.

Not only do people enjoy the unique cranberry flavor, but in these health-conscious times, they are also becoming aware of the berries' beneficial aspects.

They are said to be one of the best sources of antioxidants, such as flavonoids, that can aid in prevention of heart disease and certain cancers. They also are thought to contain "bacteria blockers" which may prevent "bad" bacteria from sticking to cells and organs where they can multiply and cause infections. They may be effective in preventing some ulcers, urinary tract infections, and gum disease.

Even in the 1930s, cranberries' "curative" powers were being marketed. An a promoting a cranberry juice cocktail, advised: "A glass when retiring promotes sleep and a clean mouth in the morning – even to the smoker."

As an aside, a friend suggests another handy use of the juice. "If you are the hostess at a party and want to pace yourself, fill your glass regularly with cranberry juice. It looks just like a light red wine, and everyone thinks you are joining in on the libations. I've done this a number of times!"

Holiday Decorations

Princeton's nearby neighbor, Cranbury – dating to 1697 – and its Cranbury Inn also enjoy a cranberry connection. The belief is that the town's name was derived from native cranberries, which grew in what was then a marshy area near the town. Originally, and until 1857, the name appeared as Cranberry and Cranberry Town. The inn remained the Cranberry Inn until 1920.

Cranberries have uses beyond the culinary and are often incorporated into holiday decorations. A neighbor recalls a special Christmas years ago, when decorations were scarce, and cranberries saved the day.

"When we spent a year of graduate study in Edinburgh, Scotland, Christmas was approaching, and our family had no decorations for our fir tree. Our creative juices started to flow, however, and we began buying cranberries and stringing them with needle and thread. It was a tedious job, but the result was lovely. Our natural Christmas tree was adorned with strings of popcorn and cranberries, as well as blown egg shells painted by our four-year-old son. At the top was a star made from cardboard and covered with aluminum foil.

"After the holidays," she adds, "we placed the tree in the garden for the birds to feast upon. They enjoyed the popcorn, but the cranberries may have been a bit too tart."

Another friend who also used cranberries for tree garlands points out, "All you need is a needle, some strong thread (or in a pinch, dental floss – especially cinnamon, which being red, fits right into the color scheme!) and LOTS of cranberries."

Other cranberry decorating ideas include the following, she adds. "Fill brandy glasses with fresh cranberries; add a place card, and you have unique place markers. You could also use martini glasses or any other attractively shaped glass.

"Also, toss some cranberries (not canned!) on your holiday table. They make great decorations. Here's an 'artsy' one: fill your vase with whole, fresh cranberries instead of using marbles or other material. Place fresh, long-stemmed flowers in the vase. Not only will they stand the way you want them, the whole thing will be beautiful and unique. Picture white roses, chrysanthemums, and perhaps some holly in the cranberry vase!"

The ubiquitous, all-purpose cranberry – another reason to be thankful this holiday season!


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