By Mary Hansel
MMC Associate Editor, Christmas Foods
My Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are not complete without a dish featuring the bog ruby, a berry that is native to North America. Over the years this berry has gone by many names including sassamanesh and cow cherry, because it was something cows were fond of eating. Early settlers called the berry a crane berry because the flowers of the bush the berry grew on resembled the head and bill of a crane. That name led to what we call the bog ruby today, the cranberry.
Native Americans used the cranberry in numerous ways. Not only did they eat the berries as is, they crushed the fruit and along with fat added it to meat such as venison or elk to form pemmican. Pemmican was a good source of protein. It could be easily stored and transported on long trips. Native American medicine men believed the berries to be medicinal and used them in poultices to draw poison out of wounds. Interestingly, the bright red juice of the berry made a dye that Native American women used to color blankets and rugs.
At 47 calories a cup, the cranberry is a great snack. It has vitamins A and C and potassium and is a source of fiber. In the 1700s, it was used by ship’s captains to prevent scurvy in their crews. It has been known to be used in the treatment of kidney, and urinary tract and bladder infections.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that cranberries began to be cultivated. Captain Henry Hall, of Cape Cod, realized that the wild berries did better when the shoots were covered in a layer of sand. Based on his experiment, cranberries began to be cultivated in other states including New Jersey and Wisconsin and in parts of Canada including Nova Scotia and Quebec. Wisconsin is the biggest grower of cranberries in the US.
The cranberry is harvested in the fall when the berry becomes a deep red in color. For the canned berries, a form of wet harvesting is used. Wet harvesting involves flooding the bogs where the cranberries grow and scooping up the berries that float off the vines. The fruits harvested this way become the canned cranberry sauces and juices.
Fresh cranberries we find in the produce department are harvested using a dry harvest method. In dry harvesting, a machine combs the berries off of the vines. This method ensures that the berries we buy in the store are at their peak for freshness.
The cranberry has a waxy skin and so keeps fresh longer. If there is a good sale on fresh cranberries at the grocery store, by all means stock up. Fresh cranberries can last up to two months in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer. It is very easy to freeze cranberries for use at a later date.
To freeze the berries, I washed and drained them well. Then I set them on a cookie sheet in one layer to air dry. Once they were dry, I packed them whole in freezer bags. The berries are in excellent shape yet and have been frozen for a little under 8 months. I will definitely be freezing some again this year.
Cranberries can be strung to form a garland that can be used to decorate trees and wreaths. When Christmas trees started to become popular in the United States, cranberry garlands were one of the popular ornaments used to decorate the trees.
They have a high water content and so will last upwards of several weeks. To string them, rinse and sort the berries, tossing any that are going soft. Once the berries are dry, you can begin to string them. Tie a knot in one end of a piece of heavy duty thread that is approximately 4 feet long. Begin stringing by pushing a needle through the top of the berry, where the stem was, and out the bottom. Slide the berry down the string as you go until the string is full. Either knot the end or tie another string on to make your garland longer. Another version of the garland can be made alternating cranberries with popcorn.
These garlands can provide much needed food for some bird species when they are used outside. If using them outside, make sure to put them up high enough that cats and dogs cannot reach them as I have not found definitive proof that cranberries are not poisonous to them.