Lynnfield,  November 16 2018

Cranberries, an essential ingredient in our Thanksgiving feasts

 By Helen Breen


The first Thanksgiving dates back to November 1621, when those hardy Pilgrims who had survived the first winter at Plymouth Plantation gathered with neighboring Wampanoag Indians for a harvest celebration. Puritan chronicler Edward Winslow recorded that Governor William Bradford “sent four men on a fowling mission in preparation for the three-day event.”

Presumably, hunters returned with an ample supply of wild turkeys that were plentiful in the area, along with ducks and geese. Their “stuffing” may have been made with herbs, onions and nuts. Winslow noted that the Wampanoag guests arrived with “an offering of five deer.” Most culinary historians agree that cranberries, in some form, were also served, since the local tribe mixed the tart berries with venison as a means of preservation.


A national holiday

Memories of the “first Thanksgiving” soon faded until Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) revived the practice after reading Winslow’s 1621 account that had resurfaced in 1854. As editor of “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” a popular magazine, she had a podium from which to bring the historic celebration back to life. A New Hampshire native, Hale shared New England recipes and customs, while aiming to extend the holiday observance throughout the country. After years of effort, Hale finally convinced President Lincoln to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.

From that time on, cranberries assumed pride of place at the Thanksgiving dinner table along with roast turkey. Scores of 19th-century cranberry sauce recipes survive. Fortunately, cooks could sweeten the pungent berries when sugar became widely available in America.


Ocean Spray

  The name most often associated with cranberry production is Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative founded in 1930 in Hanson, Mass. Dry harvesting the berries from low-lying vines was an arduous task. Ocean Spray soon developed “wet harvesting,” a process by which bogs were flooded so that the fruit floated to the top. Wooden or plastic “booms” were used to collect the berries, which were then “lifted by conveyor and pumped into a receiving station for cleaning.”

As a young man, Marcus L. Urann (1873-1963) left the legal profession to invest in cranberry bogs in southeastern Massachusetts. By 1912 his company began canning cranberry sauce and juice. Thus, the delicious berries became available throughout the year. By the 1930s he had partnered with competitors, greatly expanding the business. Since so many berries were damaged during the harvesting process, Urann developed a cranberry concoction that reached “a gel-like consistency from pectin, a natural setting agent found in the food.” Each Ocean Spray can contained a “log” of the jelly made from 200 cranberries. The product became a great success nationally and internationally, and remains so today.


The great cranberry scare of 1959

On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1959, the news that Mamie Eisenhower had served applesauce at the President’s table caused panic among cranberry lovers. A few weeks earlier, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming had announced that a small portion of cranberries from the Pacific Northwest had tested positive for an herbicide that caused abnormal growths in lab rats. Meanwhile, Ocean Spray insisted that a person would “have to consume carloads to trigger any possible ill effect.”

Yet Flemming advised housewives, better to avoid cranberries “just to be on the safe side.” Consequently, a $50 million industry collapsed overnight. While canned sales were down 79% that season, Ocean Spray researchers found that almost half of their customers were determined “to never buy cranberries again.”

This event was the “first food scare in the US to have a national impact.” Fortunately, the business slowly recovered. According to recent data, the industry generates some $3.55 billion annually and employs nearly 12,000 workers. Ironically, cranberries are now considered “healthy” for their fiber content and antioxidant properties. Recent studies show that they may help prevent heart disease and certain cancers. Go figure.


Cranberry bogs in Reedy Meadow

Three commercially grown fruits are indigenous to our region: cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes. Thomas Wellman mentions these three species in his “History of the Town of Lynnfield, Mass.: 1635-1895.” He then suggests that berry picking in town “helped out the income of many a family, and more than one young woman has greatly enriched her wedding outfit from the productions of the soil.”

In a talk to the Historical Society in 1959, Wellman’s niece Katherine Ross (1876-1972) described the importance of cranberry bogs to our local economy. Farmers leased land in Reedy Meadow to grow hay and cranberries, which were brought out of the plots with difficulty because of the marshy conditions. Miss Ross explained that as the population of Wakefield grew, “the berries were a temptation, making it necessary for the owners to watch their patches until they were ready to be picked.”

Thus, we can assume that our forefathers in Lynnfield enjoyed cranberry sauce with their turkey dinners on Thanksgiving just as we do today.

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