Did you know that the cranberry used to be called the “craneberry?”
When the colonists first learned of this berry from their American Indian hosts in the New World, they thought the blooms of the native shrub looked liked the long neck and bill of the crane. Eventually, as language goes, it was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries, or Vaccinium macrocarpon, are native to North America and are one of the main ingredients of pemmican, an American Indian travel food made of pounded dried meat, grains, animal fat and cranberries (the perfect combination of nutrients). Of course, the native cranberry is much different than those that are cultivated today for juices and sauces.
Most commercial U.S. cultivation takes place in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon.
Cranberries have specific cultural requirements so can only be successfully grown in certain parts of the country. Most commercial cranberry farms are located in natural or man-made bogs where a system of wetlands, uplands, ditches and bodies of water work together to create the perfect growing and harvesting environment.
During the growing season, which lasts from April to November, the bogs are drained and the cranberry vines grow in impermeable fields that allow for flooding just prior to harvest.
Glacial deposits created true bogs, but today cranberry farmers can create bogs by layering sand, peat, gravel and clay. The bottom most layer of clay allows for flooding later in the season while the sand, peat and gravel provide the cultural requirements of well-drained, acidic soil that cranberries must have to thrive.
There are two methods used for harvesting cranberries: dry harvesting and wet harvesting.
The firm cranberries we can buy fresh at the market in November are typically harvested dry by machine, but the majority of berries are harvested wet and this is quite the sight to behold.
Growers begin flooding their bogs just prior to harvest. Once the water level reaches about 18 inches, they send in the water reels. The reels stir the water, which loosens the berries and since cranberries float they all rise to the surface, bobbing about until they are corralled and loaded onto trucks to be sorted.
Sorting cranberries is all about the bounce: An early cranberry farmer named John “Peg Leg” Webb accidently invented the bounce test for sorting out rotting berries from fresh. John “Peg Leg” wasn’t nicknamed “Peg Leg” for nothing.
He could not carry his cranberries down from the loft of his barn so he would pour them down the steps and collect them at the bottom.
He noticed a reoccurring theme: The firmest fruit bounced all the way down and the soft, rotting fruit remained on the stairs. The bounce-board separator developed in the 1920’s is still used today to sort cranberries.
The flooding of bogs is also utilized for winter protection. The frozen water acts as an insulator and protector against frost and heavy snow damage. When the snows begin to melt, the bogs are drained once again and the plants break dormancy. Protecting the plants from frost damage is important because in order to have fruit, they must first have flower.
After learning more about cranberries a couple of years ago I made a concerted effort to use them in cooking beyond Thanksgiving.
Cranberries are great in baking, but I also tried them on pork and chicken and in salads; but my favorite way to eat fresh cranberries remains the same, Mom’s cranberry salad recipe from somewhere else originally.
1 lb. fresh cranberries, ground in food processor
Juice of 2 oranges
1 orange rind, grated
2 cups of sugar or less
Mix these ingredients together and let them stand over night in the refrigerator, than add:
1 cup celery, chopped, 1 cup apples, chopped, 1 cup walnuts, chopped, 2 small packages of cherry jello made with only 2 cups of water (let cool before adding to rest of the mixture). Mix it all together, pour into mold and chill.