Updated Nov. 23, 2021
There’s the turkey. The stuffing. The mashed potatoes. But there’s one thing that truly makes a feast a Thanksgiving feast: Good old cranberry sauce.
Some go the canned route, like Jen from Somerville.
"My dad calls it razzleberry dressing and it comes in a can," she said. "Gelatinous!"
Michael from Arlington represents those who take the DIY approach.
"It is fresh cranberry sauce, because that canned stuff is disgusting to me," he said. "So mine has to be made fresh."
Still others … well:
"I don’t think I ever touch it," said Dave, in Somerville. "I don’t think that anybody does."
Now it’s not likely that cranberry sauce had a place at the original Thanksgiving table, but cranberries were an important part of life here when the colonists arrived in the New World.
"The native North Americans used cranberries for a variety of things," said Scott Soares, executive director for U.S. cranberries at the Cranberry Marketing Committee. "They knew it was good for them. They knew it was a good meat curative, they made a product called Pemmican. They also knew it was great as a poultice for wound healing. Beyond that, because of the natural red color cranberries have, they also used it as a dye."
Along with blueberries and concord grapes, cranberries are one of only three native North American fruits cultivated today.
Even the word cranberry was coined here, according to Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster.
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"Cranberry is an English word, but it comes from New England, not England," he said. "The earliest examples are from the 1600s and they are either written in New England or refer to New England sources as the origin of the fruit itself."
And they are still a big part of life in Massachusetts today. Only Wisconsin produces more cranberries each year than the Bay State. The 2 million-plus barrels produced here each year is 25 percent of the national crop — and more than the other 48 states combined.
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A good chunk of those cranberries will be eaten tomorrow and over the coming weeks.
"The holiday season, so starting in November through December, it’s when the harvest is wrapping up so there’s also a lot of fresh fruit available, so not surprisingly, we see the spike in sales of product around that time," Soares said.
But Soares is eager to point out that cranberries aren’t just for the holidays. Only a tiny portion of the berries hit the market as fresh fruit — or as a sauce. The vast majority are consumed throughout the year as juice, or sweetened and dried.
So who is single biggest customer for cranberries? Surprisingly, it’s the international market. We export nearly a full third of our crop.
"They don’t have Thanksgiving in countries like China, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, where we have programs but they are certainly using cranberries throughout the year," Soares said.
But we do have Thanksgiving here. It’s tomorrow. And that means Toni from Somerville has some work to do.
"You need to boil down the cranberries until it becomes almost a gel, you need to freeze it for a couple of hours, add a little bit of sugar, mix it in again, and just freeze it," she said. "Wicked easy to make."
And wicked good.
This story was updated to correct a misspelling of the word poultice.