Dear Readers, first of all happy Christmas to those of you who are celebrating today, happy Hannukah to my Jewish readers, and welcome to all of you. I decided to write about cranberries today because they seem to have popped onto the UK Christmas menu fairly recently, and because they are such mouth-puckeringly tart little critters. I have to say that I don’t envy food stylists, because trying to get this bunch to stay in my best dessert dish proved something of a challenge – I must have spent five minutes chasing them around the kitchen as they bounced onto the floor. Apparently, cranberries harvested to be eaten fresh (rather than ending up in sauce) have to pass a ‘bounce test’ in New England, with only berries bouncing more than four inches being considered ripe enough, so at least I know my cranberries are good quality.
I no longer need to cook turkey for Christmas dinner, what with Mum having passed away last year and Dad now being in a care home because of his dementia, so my cranberries will be a sweet accompaniment to a Danish rice pudding with slivered almonds in it. Traditionally, though, most folk in the UK eat cranberries on one day of the year, with their Christmas turkey, and jar of sauce sits at the back of the fridge until someone notices that it has become a microhabitat all of its own and throws it away. But what on earth is a cranberry? I thought that I would do a deep dive into the provenance and history of the plant that has sneakily found its way onto our plate on 25th December.
So, cranberries are bog plants, closely related to bilberries and huckleberries, and are members of the heath/heather family (Ericaceae). There is a native British cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, which has flowers rather like those of the cyclamen, and which pops up among the sphagnum mosses in the south-west of Scotland, north-west of England and the wetter parts of Wales and Ireland. This plant is also found in North America and the northern parts of mainland Europe and northern Asia, and although its berries are not harvested commercially, it has been used as food by many Native American communities, and also as medicine.
The cranberries that most of us eat are from a different species, Vaccinium macrocarpon, and we shall turn our attention to this plant for the rest of this post. It is thought that the name ‘cranberry’ came from the resemblance of the flowers to the head and neck of a crane, and was first used by the missionary John Eliot in 1647, but the berry was being harvested by native peoples well before Europeans arrived. It is believed that the Narragansett people of the north-eastern corner of North America introduced the first settlers in Massachusetts to the cranberry, both as a winter foodstuff, and as a dye. In 1633 there is an account of a cranberry-dyed petticoat being auctioned for 16 shillings in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There are accounts of native peoples greeting European settlers with cups of cranberries as they came ashore. My heart can only bleed for what was to happen subsequently. The first reference to the serving of turkey with cranberry sauce is in 1669, at the wedding feast of Captain Richard Cobb. In the UK, any reader of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ knows that the turkey was already the major feature of Christmas dinner by Victorian times (although goose was also very popular), but I can find no mention of cranberry sauce. I seem to remember that redcurrant jelly was a favourite when I was growing up, but it’s quite possible that I misremembered. What did you used to eat with your turkey? I would love to know.
The vast bulk of the cranberries that we consume in the UK come from North America, with Wisconsin and Montreal being two epicentres of production. Chile is the third major player in the cranberry market. Cranberries are usually grown on sand, which is flooded in the fall to a depth of about eight inches above the top of the vines. A harvester then drives through the water to separate the berries – they float, and so can be scooped off the surface of the water. About five percent of the berries are dry-picked because they are to be sold fresh, but as the remainder end up in tins or jars, a little damage isn’t critical. The cranberry ‘lakes’ must be quite a sight.
Now, most of us ladies have been told at some point or another that cranberry juice, or cranberry extract, is efficacious in the treatment of cystitis or other UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections). Well, I regret to say that the jury is out. A 2012 metastudy found no link between the ingestion of cranberry products and a reduction in suffering. A 2017 study found that there was some evidence that cranberry is useful for people with recurrent infections. What seems to be clear is that the scientific evidence is contradictory and confusing. One problem, I suspect, is that cranberry on its own is so tart that it requires a large amount of sugar to make it palatable, and unfortunately the bugs that cause UTIs love to eat sugar themselves. Still, cranberries are a reasonable source of Vitamin C (though not as good as curly kale), so I imagine they won’t do you any harm.
The use of cranberry as a dye seems to be rather more reliable however, and produces a really attractive deep pink colour. Have a quick look at the experiment carried out by 44 Clovers here to see the sort of results that can be achieved.
Now, here’s an interesting thing. The Delaware Native American tribe apparently have a legend which links the ancient (and now extinct) mastodon, a relative of the elephant, and the cranberry. In the tale, the mastodons are initially helpful to the humans, but suddenly and inexplicably the animals turn against their former friends, and also begin to act badly towards the other animals. Acting on advice from the Great Spirit, the humans trap the mastodons in a pit and destroy them by throwing rocks at them. The next year, bitter red berries grow from the blood-soaked ground – the first cranberry bog. I find this all rather unsettling, especially in view of the rather romantic view that the first human inhabitants of North America lived gently alongside the other inhabitants of the continent. Lots of large mammal species disappeared shortly after humans arrived and it is unclear whether we were the cause, or just the final straw. It is fascinating that this tale, handed down through the generations, remembers when humans and the mega-mammals co-existed. I wonder if it recalls an actual event? The story has been turned into a children’s book, which looks rather splendid.
I thought that the cranberry bogs might have interested North American artists, and they have, but not in the way I thought. I expected the glow of red berries to be the chief attraction, but for Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a renowned genre and portrait painter, it was the people picking the cranberries that gave him his focus. Johnson went on to paint intimate portraits of the Ojibwe people of the Lake Superior area, and several pictures of black people which were supportive of the emancipation of slaves. His pictures of the cranberry harvest give an idea of the immense amount of labour involved before the advent of machinery, and leaves open the question of whether these people are foraging, or working.
And finally, a poem. I just discovered this today and look, it has cranberries in it! And most excellent advice to anyone who is trying to split up with someone who damages them. In it, the poet Marty McConnell imagines that Frida Kahlo (who popped up in my Strelitzia post a few weeks ago) is giving her some guidance on how to proceed. We would do well to listen, I think. Enjoy, and have a wonderful day, whatever you’re up to.
Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell
by Marty McConnell
leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. train your heart
like a dog. change the locks
even on the house he’s never
visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
you have an apartment
just your size. a bathtub
full of tea. a heart the size
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. don’t wish away
your cracked past, your
crooked toes, your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought because the vendor
at the market was so compelling you just
had to have them. you had to have him.
and you did. and now you pull down
the bridge between your houses.
you make him call before
he visits. you take a lover
for granted, you take
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. place it
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
don’t lose too much weight.
stupid girls are always trying
to disappear as revenge. and you
are not stupid. you loved a man
with more hands than a parade
of beggars, and here you stand. heart
like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.
Photo One by Bernd Haynold – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190476
Photo Two by Veganbaking.net from USA – Cranberry Sauce, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35717187
Photo Three by -jkb- – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8426461
Photo Four from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-671-75975-9