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Cranberries: Cranberry Nutrition, Facts, History, and lots of Cranberry Recipes

cranberry recipes  
cranberries and "The Sopranos" - what?  What is this?
cranberries  -history         
cranberry - purchase, care & storage

They were here in the New World, those cranberries. Stars waiting to be discovered, they spread across North America, hiding in bogs, in acid, sandy soil, waiting for a hand to reach down and pick them. Those bouncy, gleaming but oh-so tart little berries which would come to be known as cranberries were found from Newfoundland to the Carolinas, from Arkansas to Minnesota, even into Oregon and Washington State.  Not knowing the nutrition they offered, we took to cranberries' pleasant tartness and today cranberries gleam like ruby-colored jewels on holiday tables to provide us with visual pleaser and a dose of nutrition as well. 

Health Benefits of Cranberries - Nutrition, Nutrition and more Nutrition

Though cranberries are tiny, they are potent.  Packed with nutrition, they are high in vitamin C and in fiber.  But cranberries, like their relative the blueberry, also contain antioxidants in abundance which has antibacterial effects on the body.

In documents that have survived since the 17th century we have learned that cranberries were used then, not for their nutrition, but for an assortment of medicinal purposes: stomach ailments, liver problems, and blood disorders.  Cranberries traveled to sea as a protection against scurvy.  Though vitamin content as part of our daily nutrition was not known at the time, it was the high vitamin C content in cranberries that was valuable.

According to the USDA's largest study, measuring both the concentration and the antioxidant capacity per serving size, cranberries, blueberries and black berries shine as the brightest stars. 

Cranberries are tart to our tongues, but they are even tarter when confronting free radicals which goes beyond the nutrition of vitamins.  What are free radicals?  No, they are not flag-burning revolutionaries, they are atoms that scour our bodies' cells, harming them so that the immune system is too weakened to resist disease.  Plant foods provide anti-oxidants which fight free radicals.  Cranberries are among the highest of the antioxidant plants. While we may discuss these elements separately and, indeed, in the marketplace they are often separated and added to foods, it may be the combination in cranberries that produces synergistically creates the maximum health benefits and nutrition.  There is no substitute for food itself.  Drink cranberry juice, eat fresh cranberries in season and dried cranberries out of season.  Pack in the nutrition.

Proanthocyanidins, also called tannins, prevent bacteria (including Escherichia coli) from adhering to the urinary tract.   We have long used cranberries as a cure for urinary tract infections.  This also protects the cranberry itself and my have evolved to prevent it in the damp climate in which it lives. 

The major flavonoids in freshly squeezed cranberry juice are quercetin and myricetin. 

Quercetin is found to be the most active of the flavonoids in studies. Quercetin has anti-inflammatory activity because it inhibits some of the process of inflammation at the onset. It is used as a preservative in prepared foods today and has iron-binding properties.

Myricetin is a flavonoid (pigment) and is considered an antioxidant. Fighting free radicals, it is thought to have anti-cancer properties, including the ability to lower the chances of prostate cancer.  Myricetin may also lower cholesterol levels.

Oxalates. Cranberries' are high in oxalates, which can rob the body of calcium and can be a cause of kidney stones.  Research suggests that the oxalates are not highly bioavailable which means that they are not readily absorbed.   This topic is under debate and one should err on the side of caution.

Terpenes create the spicy scent and combined with other phenolic compounds give it its tart, astringent taste.

Pectin - Cranberries are rich in pectins, also found in apples, and is the reason why it can quickly become a sauce.

   

Purchase, Care and Storage of Cranberries

You will rarely be able to hand pick a cranberry unless you head off to the bogs, not an especially pleasurable "pick-you-own" adventure.  If you could pick your own, you would feel for firmness and toss one to a clean surface to see if it would bounce.  Since cranberries come packed in plastic bags, you should scrutinize the bag, but you will rarely find problems as the less glamorous cranberries are sold to become cranberry juice while the unusable are discarded.

Due to their acidic nature, cranberries can be stored in the refrigerator or, better yet, frozen.  When putting them in either fridge or freezer, you should pick through them: they should not be wrinkled or soft - remember the cranberry bounce factor.  If you plan on freezing there are two steps to take.  Step one is to spread them on a cookie sheet and freeze them.  Once they are frozen, a matter of a few hours, pour them into a plastic freezer bag.  Done in  a flash and their great nutrition will be available to you later..

Dried cranberries are readily available and will plump up in warm water quite nicely, once again a fine way to keep nutrition at hand.  They are actually more nutritious than cranberry juice.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find dried cranberries that haven't been sweetened.

 

History of Cranberries - An American History

Native American Use of Cranberries

Long before the colonists first arrived in the new land, the American Indians were using cranberries. The Wampanoag in Cape Cod and the Leni Lenapi of New Jersey and Delaware were seasonal users of cranberries as were the Algonquins of Wisconsin.  The Native Americans understood cranberries and used them not only as food, but also as dye, and for medicinal purposes.   Primary among these uses was as a poultice to heal wounds.  The tannin content of cranberries made them excellent as a poultice.

In New Jersey where the pine barrens shelter cranberry bogs, the Leni Lenape Indians made good use of the fruit they called “ibimi,” or bitter berry. There seems to have been an instinct toward nutrition and they used cranberries for food, medicine and dyes as did the other tribes, but cranberries also had the unique distinction of promoting peace.  The great Sachem held feasts in which cranberries were always served.  The cranberries become associated with peace, and their appearance on the table during feasts became a symbol of peace.

The Native Americans invented the first known transportable nutrition-packed power bar.  This was called pemmican and was made of dried meat which gave protein, dried berries

for vitamins (and a little zing), and melted fat  which congealed and provided energy.  Many varieties of fruit were used in pemmican, contingent on the local availability of various fruits, the cranberry being the choice among the New England Native Americans.

The names given to the cranberry by the Native Americans would disappear.  The word cranberry is akin to the German kranbeere and Low German or Dutch kronbere or kranebere. The word means "crane-berry," which was a reference to the appearance as the stem has the shape of the bird known as the crane. 

The Colonists Discover Cranberries

The early settlers watched the Wampanoag of New England who called this berry sassamenes and learned.In American Indian Food, Linda Berzok tells us that "In the Northeast and Southeast, cranberries and blueberries might be mixed with soup broth or cornstalk juice. "  Cornstalk juice probably had a sweetening effect and would indicate that this was the Native American use of cranberry as a sweetened sauce, though they also ate the cranberries raw.  Later, after contact with the colonists who used sugar and maple syrup, the Native Americans would learn from the colonists and adapt their sweetening methods."

In American Husbandry, an anonymous work from 1775, the author stated, "The American planters and farmers are in general the greatest slovens in christendom."  The early colonists were not good farmers of any sort.  Land was plentiful and labor costly, so the colonists did not develop good agricultural practices.  They adopted "maize" (corn) from the Indians and soon depleted the soil where it grew. The early settlers preferred instant gratification and grabbed nature's offerings which, of course, included cranberries.  We have small historical evidence of the reaction of the colonists to cranberries, but history tells us that at first the Pilgrims were resistant to the new foods of America, disdaining even such foods as lobster.   Captain John Smith wrote, "The Herbes and Fruits are of many sorts and kinds....Of certain red berries called Kermes, which is worth 10 shillings a pound, and may be yeerly[sic] gathered in good quality." ( It should be noted that the pilgrims landed in December of 1620 when no other fruit but cranberries was available in New England.)  In time they would be forced to learn to fish and hunt from the Native American tribes and would copy their cranberry sauce.

 

As the last decades of the 1700's drew to a close, the colonists began to develop saner agricultural practices.  In Massachusetts, in 1832, William Kendrick, writing for the Orchardist, stated that "Capt. Henry Hall of Barnstable has cultivated the cranberry twenty years."  Cranberries were on their way to becoming a cultivated crop, though a laborious one as no machine existed that could pick cranberries from the bogs.  All labor was done by hand. 

The snappy cranberries had arrived, though their use continued to startle newcomers who knew nothing about nutrition.  In 1808, a memorandum from a French delegate referred to that "most villainous" of sauces - cranberry sauce, "vulgarly called cramberry sauce from the voracious way they eat it."  Later, after contact with the colonists who used sugar and maple syrup, the Native Americans would adjust their own usage: in 1819 one traveler, John Heckwelder reported, " "They  [the Indians] make an excellent preserve from the cranberry and crab-apple to which, after it has been well stewed,  they add a proper quantity of sugar or molasses."  In the 1800's cranberries had become a cultivated crop.  Tart and sweet, cranberries had taken their place in history.   

An English traveler and writer, one John Josselyn wrote, "The Indians and English use them much, boylin [sic] them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their meat and it is a delicate sauce, especially for roaste Meat: Some make Tarts with them as with Goose Berries."  Josselyn also referred to cranberries as 'bear berries' because the bears had an affinity for cranberries.

Mahon Stacy, of Pemberton, NJ wrote a letter to his brother in England dated April 26, 1680. In it we find solid information about cranberries:  "We have from the time called May until Michaelmas a great store of very good wild fruits as strawberries, cranberries and hurtleberries. The cranberries, much like cherries for color and bigness, may be kept until fruit comes in again. An excellent sauce is made of them for venison, turkeys and other great fowl and they are better to make tarts than either gooseberries or cherries. We have them brot [sic] to our homes by the Indians in great plenty."  It is well to note that the Indians were aware of nutrition in an instinctive way, but that fact seems lost on the settlers.  The study of nutrition would wait for science to open the door. "

Cranberries and the First Thanksgiving

Many references to the first Thanksgiving in history claim that the cranberry did not appear on the table.  We question this.  Roger Williams' account of the first of this holiday states that the Pilgrims "ate plentiful of strawberries that grew abundantly in place."  Surely, he was guided to this statement by the color red, but no strawberries were in season.  Could he have referred to the only fruit available - the cranberry? 

John Adams mentions cranberries in his diaries, stating that he "found a fine Wild Goose on the Spit and Cramberries stewing in the Skillet for Dinner" at the home of a Dr. Tuft. He goes on to say that Tufts invited him "to dine upon wild Goose and Cramberry Sauce." Adams must have loved these meals for, on March 23, 1798 it was then-President Adams signature on the proclamation that made Thanksgiving a national holiday .

Cranberries as a Bribe - Approaching King Charles II

The early colonists hoped to get the Acts of Trade and Navigation relaxed.  Call it a gift, or call it a bribe, they presented to King Charles II ten barrels of cranberries, two barrels of cornmeal mush (called samp), and three thousand codfish.  Whether it was the acidic cranberries, or something to do with fish that had crossed the ocean, we do not know, but King Charles was not impressed, and the laws remained the same.  Some of the English enjoyed cranberries, however, as they were sold on the Strand at four shillings a jar.  When cranberries arrived in France, the French were not impressed, however the Germans who eat tart and fruity sides dishes with their heavy meat diet, took to the cranberry.

Abraham Lincoln and "Cranberry Laws"

In debate with Stephen Douglas, on July 10, 1858, Abraham Lincoln illustrated his understanding of the wide variety of foodstuffs in the country, and the ensuing necessity to allow States Rights:

"I have no controversy with Judge Douglas about that. I shall very readily agree with him that it would be foolish for us to insist upon having a cranberry law here in Illinois, where we have no cranberries, because they have a cranberry law in Indiana, where they have cranberries. I should insist that it would be exceedingly wrong in us to deny to Virginia the right to enact oyster laws, where they have oysters, because we want no such laws here. I understand, I hope, quite as well as Judge Douglas or anybody else, that the variety in the soil and climate and face of the country, and consequent variety in the industrial pursuits and productions of a country, require systems of law conforming to this variety in the natural features of the country."

Lewis and Clark find Cranberries

From the journal of William Clark: "I prosued this gang of Elk through bogs . . . and many places I Sunk into the Mud and water up to my hips without finding any bottom on the trale of those Elk. Those bogs are covered with a kind of Moss among which I observe an abundance of Cranberries."  Obviously, food was merely to stave off hunger, not provide nutrition"

Cranberries in Pennsylvania - Craze or Scandal?

Cranberries became a successful commercial crop.  Pennsylvania did not have productive cranberry bogs and eyed the cranberry success of Massachusetts and New Jersey with envy.  Not available commercially until after the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Dutch were at a serious disadvantage at holiday time.  Though Pennsylvania had rich farm lands, the farmers irrigated their land creating boggy patches of soil. A Connecticut entrepreneur, one T. Trobridge who ran a cranberry nursery in New Haven, devised what he believed would be a money-maker.  He would sell cranberry plants to the farmers, selling them on the idea by stating that the boggy soil would be perfect for cranberries.  Anxious to sell, he took large, expensive ads in the German-American newspaper, Der Amerikcanishce Bauer.  Encouraged by the money they made from the ads, the editors of the paper wrote editorials encouraging the farmers to cultivate cranberries. 

History would prove that cranberries would not become a Pennsylvania crop.  With their limited harvest time, it proved to be a costly crop to plant, with an outlay that filled the coffers of the good Mr. Trobridge, but not those of the farmers.  The craze died and cranberries were relegated only to holiday pies, their nutrition unknown.

 

Cranberries and "The Sopranos"

Fans of "The Sopranos" will never forget the classic episode when Christopher and Paulie think they have murdered a member of the Russian mob.  They wrap the body and put it in the trunk of their car and head to the Pine Barrens to dump the body.  Unfortunately for Christopher and Paulie, the Russian is not dead and escapes into the woods.  In pursuit, the two mobsters get lost.  They find a van and try to survive the chill in the van.  Buried in the van are packets of frozen ketchup which they eat to stave off hunger, hardly a source of warmth or nutrition.

Unknown to these two, who more resemble the Keystone Kops (Keystone Killers?) than mobsters, the cranberry bogs are in the Pine Barrens.  With a little hunting, they might have fortified themselves on the very nutritious cranberries that might have been frozen under their feet.  Would the course of Soprano history have been different if cranberries had nourished these two popular gangsters?  Would Christopher and Paulie have gone straight and become cranberry farmers?  And what happened to the wild Russian?  Is he lying frozen among the bobbing red cranberries?  Alas, we will never know how the course of mob history might have changed if Christopher and Paulie had had cranberry awareness. 

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Cranberries in Early Cookbooks

Cranberries found their way into American cookery, first only as sauce or pie or tart.  Here are a few examples of early recipes or mentions of cranberries.  You will note the change in writing style as the date moves closer to the contemporary.  Looking at these primitive recipes, we are grateful indeed for the imagination that today's cookbook writers bring to their dishes as well as for their ability to write a clear recipe.  Cranberry pie was popular, though recipe writers debated the use of dough, often made of lard and not high on nutrition.  Cranberry pie appears in the early books, but around 1912 it disappeared from the repertoire, possibly a reaction to the need for a lot of sugar as that element of nutrition entered the American consciousness..

In the appendix to the English cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, twenty-nine American recipes were listed.  A recipe for cranberry pies was included and was large enough to make four pies which would be eaten over a period of days at every meal.

American Cookery, Or The Art Of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry And Vegetables, And The Best Modes Of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards And Preserves, And All Kinds Of Cakes, From The Imperial Plumb To Plain Cake.  Adapted To This Country, And All Grades Of Life.   By Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan.  1796  Listed under TART is this 'recipe' for a cranberry tart:

Cranberries  Stewed, strained and sweetened, put into paste No. 9, and baked gently.

Simmons also includes a more imaginative use of cranberries in this recipe for bass:

"Season high with salt, pepper and cayenne, one slice salt pork, one of bread, one egg, sweet marjoram, summer savory and parsley, minced fine and well mixed, one gill wine, four ounces butter; stuff the bass - bake in the oven one hour; think slices of pork laid ont eh fish as it goes into the over; when done pour over dissolved butter; serve up with stewed oysters, cranberries, boiled onions or potatoes."

Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats : Being a Family Manuscript, Curiously Copied by an Unknown Hand Sometime in the Seventeenth Century, which was in Her Keeping from 1749 .

Statesmen's Dishes and How to Cook Them. 1890 This is a cookbook oddity as it was edited by the then First Lady, Mrs. Benjamin Harrison.  The recipe mixed lemon, oranges , cranberries and sugar.

The Table by Alessandro Filippini.  1891 Here we find this recipe:

Put one quart of fresh cranberries in a saucepan with a gill of cold water and three ounces of powdered sugar; place on a hot stove, stir lightly with the spatula, and let cook for fifteen minutes. Remove from the fire, and rub through a sieve into a vessel, then pour it into a lined pie-plate. Place it in the oven, and let it bake for twenty minutes, then take it out, and let cool thoroughly, and finish by decorating it exactly the same as for lemon cream pie meringue; return it to the oven for ten minutes, then serve.

Hood’s Practical Cook’s Book. 1897.  Recipe writing is not without its humor:

Line a plate with a plain paste and fill with stewed sweetened cranberries, scatter sugar over the cranberries and cover with strips of paste placed across parallel in two directions to form diamonds. "Pie is the great American delicacy in the pastry line, and our foreign friends are prone to poke fun at us because of our supposed fondness for it.   It is assumed to be somewhat more of a sectional than a national weakness, however, and the ‘pie line’ is usually located somewhere north and east of New York."

1920's saw the Gold Medal Cranberry Roly Poly.  The automobile had been invented and America was beginning its love affair with the auto and with the ability to go camping.  Roly Poly's were cranberry rolls, made at home to be later steamed over a campfire.

Cranberries today are major industry in the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Oregon.

You Tube has several videos showing cranberries.  They are colorful to say the least, fascinating to say the most.  Click here

   
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