How Well Do You Know Your Cranberry Sauce?

By Jason Donahoe |

© Envision/Corbis

This piece originally appeared on

We all know about the cranberry. But can anyone really say they know the cranberry? Bitter, red and polarizing, the curmudgeonly evergreen—yes, it’s an evergreen—is prolific during the tail end of the calendar year and the happy hour cocktails of lightweights the world over. Culled from bush or acidic bog, the fruit’s tart, pungent overtones provide a challenging counterpoint to autumn’s saccharine pumpkin plethora. So with the holidays on the horizon, we pause to salute the somber soldier of the Thanksgiving spread. To revel in its successes and reflect on its defeats. Today, we consider the cranberry.

Although it has become synonymous with Thanksgiving, few people know that the cranberry is actually one of one three commercially grown American fruits native to North America (the others being the blueberry and the Concord grape). Indeed, the cranberry is more American than the apple. European colonists took cues for their first use of the fruit from natives—it was used sparingly in cooking and sometimes even used as a form of currency. Later, its richness in vitamin C and relatively long shelf-life made it a silver bullet against scurvy on long sea voyages.

Until the early 19th century the fruit grew plentifully in the wild, but by the mid 19th century enterprising farmers had successfully cracked the code on its cultivation. From

Cultivation of the cranberry began around 1816, shortly after Captain Henry Hall, of Dennis, Massachusetts, noticed that the wild cranberries in his bogs grew better when sand blew over them. Captain Hall began transplanting his cranberry vines, fencing them in, and spreading sand on them himself. When others heard of Hall’s technique, it was quickly copied. Continuing throughout the 19th century, the number of growers increased steadily.

Today, cranberries are grown in the northern US and Canada from Prince Edward Island to as far south as Delaware, and out west to Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon and British Columbia.

In New England, especially, drinkable cranberry wine abounds. And its juice remains popular both for its diuretic properties—it’s a well-known tonic for sufferers of kidney ailments—as well as for a number of frilly, tart cocktails we don’t recommend. And since various marketing machines have successfully rebranded the berry as a nutrient-rich superfood, its consumption in various forms as snackfood has skyrocketed.

Cranberry Sauce

Whatever new uses it finds, it is cranberry sauce that has made the berry synonymous with Thanksgiving—aside from turkey, the gelatinous, purple fuchsia jam tinged with notes of citrus, spice and often nuts and cognac is the staple of a proper Thanksgiving spread. Its use is similar to the Scandinavian tradition of eating savoury meats with with bittersweet lingonberry jams, but its use has lately become more popular as an anytime accompaniment to turkey. While more enterprising hosts choose to make their own, its iconic, fresh-from-the-tin form—with its telltale cylinder shape and undulating ribs intact—remains its archetype and source of nostalgia for many.

The Next Day Slider

Thanksgiving. Day 2. Tryptophan turkey naps slowly wearing off, it’s time to hit the fridge for the leftover smorgasbord. It’s sandwich time. A snowflake roll will do. Top that with carved turkey and all the trimmings you’d like. But cranberry is the key. Combine leftover cranberry sauce with mayonnaise. 3:1 mayo to cran for best results, and enjoy. Garnish with leftover bacon from the next-day brunch and zest with a lemon for the ultimate post-holiday snacker.

Baked Cran

Thanks most probably to Wende and Harry Devlin’s 1971 classic, Cranberry Thanksgiving, cranberry bread has also become a minor thanksgiving staple. Its straightforward recipe and its evocative, nostalgic story has made the bread the first baking experience of untold legions of children and the myriad scones and muffins and cran-everything-else on café and supermarket shelves today probably owe the origin of their popularity to the book as well.

Cranberry illustrations by Brandon Straus.
Classic illustrations by Wende and Harry Devlín

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