CRANBERRIES IN A CAN
Cranberries are native to North America. They were cultivated by native people both for food and for medicine, and it is believed that indigenous tribes introduced them to the Pilgrims, lending credence to the cranberry’s claim for a place on the Thanksgiving table.
Cranberries are a notoriously finicky crop. Traditionally grown in wetlands, they require a lot of water and acidic, peaty soil. Further, they need the dormant period provided by long cold winters, and will not thrive in the South. In the United States, they are grown in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, parts of Washington and Wisconsin.
The berries weren’t marketed and sold commercially until the middle of the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, cranberry commerce was well established and competition between growers was fierce. But problems remained. Cranberries usually are harvested from mid-September through mid-November in North America and, as recently as 100 years ago, they were only available fresh those months of the year, offering growers ideal timing for Thanksgiving but little income the rest of the year.
That began to change at the turn of the 20th century when a lawyer named Marcus L. Urann gave up his legal practice and bought a cranberry bog in Massachusetts. He quickly set about finding ways to extend cranberry season, and hit upon canning as a means to create a product with a shelf life of months, not days, so he could sell year-round.
In the 1930s, changes in how cranberries were harvested further improved the lot of growers. Cranberries grow on vines and traditionally were hand picked, or dry harvested, a labor-intensive enterprise. A new technique, wet harvesting, flooded the bog and used water reels to separate the berries from the vine. Air pockets in the berries caused them to float to the surface where they could be collected mechanically. What used to take a week now only required an afternoon, and four or five workers could now accomplish what once required a team of 20 to 30. Today 90% of cranberries are wet harvested.
But the shift to flooding cranberry bogs has not been without controversy; In the 1950s growers began spraying the bogs with aminotriazole, an herbicide intended to clear the bogs of weeds. Farmers were only permitted to use the chemical for a week after the last harvest, so that any ill effects would dissipate before a new crop appeared, but in 1959 word passed shortly before Thanksgiving that cranberries from the Pacific Northwest tested positive for the herbicide. Despite the fact than some experts thought the threat to human health was exaggerated, sales dropped almost 70% that year, prompting the American Council on Science and Health to conclude that the great cranberry scare of 1959 was the first carcinogen food panic in the United States. Aminotriazole is no longer in use, but cranberry growers still use a host of other chemicals and, after harvest, the pesticide-filled water is drained through dams, ditches and pumps and may end up in local bodies of water.
One reason that cranberry farmers have successfully resisted calls to raise their crops without chemicals is that they are organized. In 1930, a loop hole in American anti-trust laws allowed Urann to join with several of his major competitors to create Cranberry Canners, Inc., a cooperative aimed to control crop prices and volume instability. After World War II the organization became the National Cranberry Association and, in 1957, its name was changed to Ocean Spray. The cooperative now includes 600 independent growers who work together to set prices and standards, including making the argument that, at least for cranberries, organic farming is prohibitively expensive.
Urann continued to develop new cranberry products, releasing his cranberry juice cocktail in 1933 and his jellied cranberry sauce log, shaped like the can it comes in and ubiquitous on many Thanksgiving tables, in 1941. Americans today consume more than 5 million gallons of jellied cranberry sauce every holiday season. Laid from end to end, all of the cans of cranberry sauce consumed in a year would stretch nearly 3,500 miles.
The recipes that follow may only be of interest to the 26% of Americans who prefer their cranberry sauce homemade…..