All hail the cranberry at the holidays

November 24, 2017

One of the surest signs we're starting the winter holiday season is the abundant supplies of fresh cranberries stocked in the produce aisle. The deep-red, highly acidic berry is difficult to enjoy raw, but was valued in this country for a variety of uses long before European settlers arrived.

Native Americans were well acquainted with wild cranberries, harvesting the fruit from marshy bogs for food, dye and medicine. Cranberries were a key ingredient in the original version of a high-energy bar known as pemmican, a combination of tallow, dried meat (usually venison) and crushed cranberries. Cranberry's deep scarlet color proved an excellent textile dye, and its astringent properties were helpful in treating wounds.

After the American Revolution, Henry Hall of Cape Cod became one of the earliest settlers to cultivate cranberries on a drained and fenced marsh near Cape Cod. 

Whalers and fishermen learned the importance of cranberries in preventing scurvy, and the bright red fruit found a niche on sea voyages. British immigrants found cranberries an ideal replacement for the gooseberries and red currants featured in the tart sauces they assembled to serve with boiled and roasted meats. While pots of cranberry sauce were a common sight at nearly every meal into the early 19th century, within several decades the dish was only served at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Over time, growers found new commercial uses for cranberries, from dried snack foods to highly sweetened juices, with crops sourced in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. By the early 1950s, cranberry had become a cash crop, and growers turned to chemicals to reduce the intrusion in their bogs from wild sedges, reeds and grasses. Through agreement among the industry, the herbicide aminotriazole was typically applied after the fall harvest to ensure the crop would not carry any potential contaminants to the table. However, in 1959, the herbicide was sprayed on the cranberry crop before the harvest, and tests of the berries found traces of the potential carcinogen.

In an abundance of caution, this became America's first food scare, when the Federal Health Education and Welfare scientists declared cranberries unsafe. Sales of both fresh and canned cranberries plummeted, while the Ocean Spray company insisted the volume of cranberries necessary to cause human harm was far more than a handful of berries or spoonful of sauce.

For Thanksgiving that year, Mamie Eisenhower chose to serve applesauce to her guests. On the campaign trail, it was another story. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon bravely ate almost four servings of cranberry sauce (which later tested positive for the chemical). His opponent, John F. Kennedy, drank two glasses of sweetened cranberry juice (whether this was plain or as the mixer in a Cosmopolitan cocktail was not reported).

With substantial losses in the cranberry industry that year, growers became more cautious about which chemicals they applied and when. And, our food testing techniques have become more sensitive and sophisticated, which may explain the number of cranberry product recalls we continue to see, even in recent years (but for different reasons).

Since we have long associated the cranberry with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, we should follow the courageous example set by those two men on the campaign trail. However, I would recommend thoroughly rinsing fresh berries before making relish or the scones in the photo. Alternatively, pour some sweetened cranberry juice drink into a martini glass with vodka and lime juice to toast the season.

Cosmopolitan Cocktail 

1 1/2 oz vodka 
1 1/2 oz cranberry juice drink* 
1/2 oz fresh lime juice 
lime twist 

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add vodka, cranberry juice drink and lime juice. Shake well and strain into a chilled, stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist. 

Yield: 1 serving. *Note: This is a sweetened cranberry juice mixture; do not attempt with unsweetened or pure cranberry juice.

Cranberry Scones 

2/3 C plain yogurt 
1 egg 
3 C flour 
4 t baking powder 
1/2 t baking soda 
pinch salt 
8 T butter 
1 C fresh cranberries 
1/3 C sugar 
1 t grated orange peel 

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Combine egg and yogurt in a small bowl and mix well; set aside. Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture. Using 2 knives or a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Roughly chop the cranberries and stir them into the mixture along with sugar and orange peel. Add the yogurt mixture and stir with a fork until a soft dough forms. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until well mixed, about 4 or 5 turns. Form the dough into a ball and flatten slightly. Cut the dough into 8 wedges and gently separate so they do not touch. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.