The Ice Age Glaciers gave us a gift.
Ten thousand years ago, glaciers receded from what is now New England. They left bogs filled with sand, clay, and organic matter.
Perfect for cranberries.
What’s a cranberry bog? It’s soft, marshy ground with acidic soil. Low-lying cranberry vines thrive in that environment.
The Native American tribe, Wampanoag Nation (“People of the First Light”) knew the value of the small, tart berries. They called them sasumauneaash or obimi, literally “sour berries” and gathered them long before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620.
The Wampanoags lived mostly in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in wigwams during the summer and longhouses in the winter. Longhouses stretched over 200 feet with compartments for families, a central aisle for cooking, eating, and an opening in the roof that served as a chimney.
Cranberries were a Wampanoag “super food.” They ate them raw or in a sauce sweetened with maple syrup. They rolled them into cakes with fat, meat or fish called pemmican. Pemmican was dried in the sun – a highly nutritious food that could last for years. Many compare pemmican to today’s protein bars.
Wampanoags also used cranberries to soothe wounds, ease indigestion, treat blood poisoning, and as a dye for blankets and rugs.
The Wampanoags believed in a “benevolent being” named Moshup. A tribe member explained that Moshup was the “first schoolmaster. From his home on the cliffs he taught the people respect . . . and to be charitable.”
When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 on land where the Wampanoags had lived for thousands of years, the Native Americans welcomed them. They taught the colonists how to hunt, farm, fish, and grow crops. The first Thanksgiving dinner was a Wampanoag feast. They served the Pilgrims wildfowl (probably duck or goose, not turkey), corn, venison, native fruits, and wild cranberries.
According to Russell Yost in The History Junkie, “without the help of the Wampanoag tribe, it is possible that the colonists of Plymouth Colony, would not have survived.”
Some colonists were familiar with cranberries that grew in English bogs and The Netherlands. The English called them craneberries because the flower looked like the head of a Sandhill Crane.
Eventually cranberries appeared in English books like John Jusselyn’s New England Rarities Discovered, described as “sauce for the Pilgrims.” A few years later a reference was made to cranberry juice and in 1703, cranberries were served at Harvard University’s commencement dinner.
It wasn’t until 1816 and Revolutionary War Hero, Captain Henry Hall, that cranberries were successfully cultivated in a Cape Cod bog.
Cultivating cranberries isn’t easy. Contrary to popular opinion, cranberries grow on trailing vines, similar to strawberries, not in water. According to Massachusetts Cranberries, “natural bogs evolved from deposits left by the glaciers . . . in impermeable holes lined with clay . . . [and] beds layered with sand, peat, and gravel.” When they ripen, the bog is flooded with water, forcing the cranberries to rise to the surface, ready for picking. A healthy cranberry vine will survive indefinitely – some are more than 150 years old.
Cranberries float. They bounce, too.
During the 1800s, more growers followed Hall’s lead. They needed better tools to replace the hand-gathered harvest. Wooden scoops, sorters, and screening equipment were designed. As the number of cranberry growers increased, agricultural co-ops were established to regulate price and quality.
In 1912, attorney and businessman, Marcus L. Urann revolutionized the business.
He canned cranberries.
By 1930, Urann and two other growers had formed the Ocean Spray Cranberries Cooperative – a marketing group that represents over 700 growers today.
Cranberries were no longer seasonal – available year-round. Like the stuff we eat at Thanksgiving.
Today over 403,000 tons of cranberries are produced in the U.S. – the most in the world. Over half come from Wisconsin. Canada is close behind. Cranberries have gone global – mixed into Israeli couscous; Asian sauce with orange and ginger; and Chilean cranberry meatballs. You can find cranberries in cheese, ice cream, cakes, breads and cookies . . . the list is always growing.
Cranberries are considered healthy, helping manage urinary tract issues, soothe wounds, swollen lymph glands, burns . . . that list is also growing with new research. Celebrate events like National Cranberry Day, Eat A Cranberry Day, or Cranberry Day in the Wampanoag Harvest Festival.
Whether it’s Thanksgiving or every day, you can float, bounce, drink, or eat cranberries. Don’t forget to thank the Wampanoag.
Pucker up and enjoy!