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No Thanksgiving table is complete without cranberry sauce. When you stop to think about it, it’s a bit odd; nobody cares much about them for the remainder of the year, so how did this extremely tart red berry become so essential on the last Thursday of November?

As an anthropology major with a serious love of food, this question has always puzzled me, so I did a little digging and here’s what I found out.

Cranberries are one of a handful of native North American fruits that are still cultivated. They originated in the Northern U.S. and Canada, and today Wisconsin produces the majority of the world’s supply. Not surprisingly, the native people of the upper Midwest relied heavily on the bright red berries, especially through the long cold winter when vitamin rich foods (especially vitamin C) were hard to find. The most common use for cranberries in pre-Columbian times was to dry them, then press them together with pulverized dried venison meat and fat to make a food called pemmican. The meat provided vital protein and calories, and the cranberries contained vitamins, fiber, and other micro-nutrients. This made pemmican an excellent source of nutrition through the winter—it was essentially the first energy bar, and an extremely effective one.

When Europeans arrived on the scene, they called the tart red berries craneberries, since the flowers of the cranberry plant reminded them of the heads of sandhill cranes. Though some fur traders and frontiersmen relied on pemmican out of necessity, the colonists were slow to adopt cranberries into their culinary repertoire. Europeans generally preferred to keep to their familiar food traditions which included such things as pies, puddings, and roasts, but not anything resembling pemmican. Cranberries were too sour to utilize in their existing fruit recipes, and sweeteners were too rare and dear to use to sweeten the tart berries. In fact, it’s not likely that cranberries wereeaten at the first Thanksgiving, since they were not in favor among the colonists at that time.

Once sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, and—later—sugar) became widely available, cranberries began to gain some popularity. They were used in pies, tarts, and most importantly (for us) as a sauce to accompany roast meats. This use of a sweet fruit sauce with meat has a long tradition in European cuisine, and cranberries worked perfectly in these sorts of recipes.

I learned in my anthropology training that often when cultural traditions fall out of general practice they survive only during special occasions (feasts, ceremonies, etc.). The practice of eating roast meat with a sweet fruit sauce is a perfect example of this: we eat turkey and cranberries at Thanksgiving and not any other day of the year.

Reusch Century Farm
Speaking of tradition, our main local supplier of cranberries, Reusch Century Farm, is steeped in it. As the name implies, this farm in Wood County, Wisconsin, has been worked by the same family for over 100 years. Brian and Mary Reusch are the fourth generation of Reusch farmers on the land. Brian uses a traditional hand rake to harvest his organic cranberries (instead of a mechanical harvester), and he dry harvests the berries, meaning he doesn’t flood the bog beforehand as most modern cranberry farmers do. This means a lot more work, but it also means a better quality berry than you’ll find anywhere else.

This year, when you set that bowl of cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving table, take just a moment to ponder the layers of tradition that this simple dish represents: Native American, European, and Wisconsin Agricultural traditions all coming together to make this delicious dish that we simply can’t do without (at least one day a year).

 “Cranberries, a Thanksgiving staple, were a native american ...” 2013. 2 Oct. 2014
 “History of Cranberries—Cape Cod Cranberry Growers ...” 2006. 2 Oct. 2014
 “Ruesch Century Farm Organic Cranberries.” 2003. 4 Oct. 2014

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