Did you know that the cranberry is the official berry of the commonwealth of Massachusetts? Just like apple picking, leaf peeping, or riding along a haunted hayride, the sight of those bright red cranberry bogs is an essential part of autumn in Massachusetts.
Cranberries are indigenous to the northern United States and were enjoyed by Native peoples in New England long before European colonists arrived. The Narragansett and Wampanoag called these berries sasemineash and used cranberries to make pemmican (sun-dried meat or fish cakes), nasampe (grits), or combined the berries with maple sugar to create a sweet sauce. In addition to being an important food source, cranberries were also used to dye fabric and also had medicinal properties good for blood poisoning and poultices.
Cranberries proved to be equally important to the British colonists’ diet when they arrived in 1620. Most historians believe that cranberries must have been part of the first Thanksgiving meal, though perhaps not in a form that might be recognizable to us in the modern day. However, we know for certain that both Native Americans and English colonists were making a version of modern-day cranberry sauce around this time thanks to English traveler John Josselyn. He mentioned cranberries in his 1671 work New England's Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country, noting that the “Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat; and it is a delicate Sauce, especially for roasted mutton: Some make tarts with them as with Goose Berries.” This may be the first written reference to cranberry sauce! Despite this early reference however, it is difficult to find colonial recipes for New England staples like cranberry sauce. Author and blogger Peter Muise theorized that making cranberry sauce was so simple that it took 200 years for anyone to think about preserving a recipe for it: “I suppose it would have been like including a recipe for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
|John Josselyn’s description of cranberries, or “bear berries,” from his 1671 book |
New-England's rarities discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents,
and plants of that country.
Courtesy of University of Michigan Library.
Throughout colonial Massachusetts, cranberries continued to be a food gathered rather than cultivated. However, in the early 1800’s a sea captain and Revolutionary War veteran named Henry Hall transplanted cranberry vines to his property in North Dennis, Massachusetts. There on Cape Cod, Hall found that cranberries did best when they received sandy soil from the nearby dunes, and soon he was producing enough cranberries to ship them to Boston and New York. In 1860, Reverend Benjamin Eastwood published a book on cranberry cultivation and the practice surged in popularity, with farmers growing cranberries as far away as Oregon and Washington State.
By the late 19th century, Plymouth and Barnstable Counties had thousands of acres dedicated to the cultivation of the cranberry. The American Cranberry Growers Association was formed in 1871, and the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association was established in 1888. The growing and harvesting of cranberries was so essential to the economy of southern Massachusetts that up until 1927 children could be excused from school to work the bogs during harvest time.
Traditionally, cranberries grew in wetlands, and today even the manmade cranberry beds are referred to as cranberry bogs. Contrary to popular belief, these bogs are actually dry for the majority of the growing season and only flooded at harvest time. When the bogs are flooded, the cranberries are dislodged and float to the top of the water, making it easy to collect them. The vast majority of cranberries are harvested in this way and then are processed to make dried fruit, sauce, and the official beverage of Massachusetts: cranberry juice. A small percentage of cranberry bogs are “dry harvested,” or picked by mechanical harvesters or by hand rather than being flooded. Dry harvested cranberries are usually sold as fresh fruit.
While the contemporary cranberry industry in the United States now harvests over 40,000 acres of cranberries each year, many of the largest cranberry producers, researchers, and growers are still based in southern Massachusetts. In Carver you can find the not-for-profit Cranberry Institute, and in Wareham you can find the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee, for promotion of the American cranberry, as well as the UMass Cranberry Station, which focuses on outreach and research. A.D. Makepeace, also based in Wareham, is the world’s largest cranberry grower. In 1930, a group of cranberry growers, including A.D. Makepeace, formed the cranberry cooperative Ocean Spray in Hanson, Massachusetts. Today, Ocean Spray has over 700 members and is responsible for 70% of North American cranberry production. Based in Lakeville, you can view a live cam of their Lakeville cranberry bogs on their website.
Cranberries have been and continue to be an important part of Massachusetts cuisine, agriculture, and business. To visit a Massachusetts cranberry bog or purchase local cranberries this fall, visit the Cape Cod Cranberry Grower’s Association’s website for more information.
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