What is the only berry you can think of that was enjoyed by native Americans 12,000 years ago, first commercially grown on Cape Cod by a veteran of the Revolutionary War, is typically harvested underwater, is eventually turned into a jelly-jiggling log that plops from a can, and is a safe expectation on any and every Thanksgiving table?
We imagine that last gives away the answer. It’s the cranberry, of course. And while business factors have forced cranberry growers, processors and marketers to seek uses all yearround – think: the Cosmopolitan at your favorite cocktail emporium – the highest annual visibility by far will take place between now and Christmas Day.
These hard, tart red orbs have found popularity around the world, with China (until the recent trade wars) becoming the largest country buying the product from the United States. It remains to be seen whether the quickest fix for China and others will be simply getting the cranberries they crave from Canada. In this country, the first state to grow cranberries commercially (thanks to that Revolutionary War veteran, Henry Hall), Massachusetts, is now in second place behind Wisconsin. New Jersey contributes quite a few cranberries to our supply, as do Washington and Oregon.
We’ve always thought the most fascinating thing about cranberries was how they eventually were harvested, using greater and greater degrees of mechanization as American industry developed. The low-lying bushes and vines were first accessed by the Narragansett tribe of New England by way of hand-picking, much as we envision picking any other berry that ends up on our table. Yet by the late 19th century, the need for greater efficiency to harvest greater volumes of cranberries became obvious to all.
The solution involved two longtime staples of agriculture, dirt and water, yet used them in an enterprising way. Land slated for cranberries growing – typically already wetlands – was prepared with dirt so it could grow berries and also hold water, forming a shallow bowl. This came to be known as a bog. Contrary to what some people picture, the berries are not grown in water but in moist dirt. At harvest, the bog is filled with water and, at least now, a very lightweight machine moves among the bushes, knocking cranberries off their vines.
The system works primarily because picked cranberries float. They can then be gathered, originally by hands holding wooden scoops but today with machines doing something similar, and packed off for sale as fresh berries in season, as canned “jelly” any time, and as juice. Sugar plays a major part in each process, since the berry’s natural tartness is more than most consumers prefer. The briefest exposure to heat, usually in a liquid, makes the fruit soften and pop open
As long as anyone can remember, cranberry harvests have taken place in the fall, making the berries a natural, and some would say unavoidable, part of Thanksgiving and the rest of America’s holiday celebration. At 12,000 years and counting, cranberries at this time of year are many centuries older than the now-ubiquitous “pumpkin spice.” And we are part of the ever-growing army that hopes they’ll be enjoyed a long time afterward as well.
BOURBON CRANBERRY TURKEY MEATBALLS
No, we don’t think you should serve this dish as an appetizer before your traditional feast of turkey with cranberry sauce, among a dozen other delicious things. But if you’re looking for a fun, tongue-in-cheek spin on holiday food in general, try these turkey cocktail meatballs in an irresistible sauce blending fresh cranberries with one of our holiday favorites.
2 pounds ground turkey
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
2 large eggs
½ cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons minced onion
¼ teaspoon lemon pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup chicken broth
1 jar Fischer & Wieser’s Bourbon Cranberry Preserves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups fresh cranberries
Combine the turkey, breadcrumbs, eggs, parsley, onion, lemon pepper and garlic powder in large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the meatballs in the olive oil in a large pan or skillet until they are browned on all sides and cooked through. Remove from the pan and pour off as much grease as possible. Return the pan to the fire and add the chicken broth, stirring briskly to remove browned bits of turkey from the bottom. Add the preserves and lemon juice; stir in thoroughly liquify and incorporate the preserves. When sauce is syrupy, add the fresh cranberries and cook just until they start to fall apart. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve hot with plenty of cranberries and sauce, with toothpicks if desired. Serves 8-10.