Captain Create is learning about a truly American food this week in the state where they were first recorded to be grown for market. He’s in Massachusetts learning about the cranberry!
The Algonquin, Chippewa, and Cree people gathered wild cranberries where they could find them in what is now Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, and went all the way west to Oregon and Washington, and north to areas of British Columbia and Quebec, according to Devon Mihesuah, a professor at the University of Kansas. The berry was called sassamenesh (by the Algonquin) and ibimi (by the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape), which translates literally as “bitter” or “sour berries.” 1
Cranberries were used for everything from cooking to dyes for textiles to medicines by the indigenous peoples, who generously shared what they knew with the colonial settlers, which is why cranberries are part of what we eat each fall and winter season, as well as traditional parts of holiday feasts. Indigenous peoples cared for the plants and shared how to grow them with the colonists to ensure everyone’s survival of the harsh winters. How do cranberries grow?
Cranberries grow on shrubs that are low to the ground, and the berries are white or pink until just after the first frost, when they turn bright red. There are two ways to pick cranberries: carefully pick them by hand, known as “dry harvested”, or by flooding the bog and gathering them out of the water, which is known as “wet harvested”. Nearly all the cranberries grown on the American continent are harvested between September and October. 2 People who work in cranberry bogs care for the plants all year, then help gather the berries into containers to transport them to market or to processors.
What can you make with cranberries? Native Americans used them in the original energy bar, pemmican, as well as ate them fresh and dried. Colonists used them in a variety of recipes, often to replace other sour berries they used to get in Europe, but did not have in the “new world”. Cranberry sauce is a big part of Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, but there are lot more things you can do with a cranberry!
Fresh cranberries are very tart and a little bitter, so cooking them with other things is the best way to take advantage of all the health benefits these bright berries contain. They are packed full of vitamin C, as well as phytochemicals, which are plant parts that help your body fight germs. Add them to cookies, stuffing, or use them in desserts. Dried cranberries add a bright bite to morning oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies, and even salads. Cranberry juice is a yummy addition to hot cider too!
Captain Create has a few of his favorite recipes below, and be sure to ask the older folks you know if they have recipes from when they were younger that use cranberries. There are a lot of traditions to learn about, and if they taste good, then that’s even better!
1- Whitman-Salkin, S. (2021, May 4). Cranberries, a Thanksgiving staple, were a Native American superfood. Science. Retrieved November 12, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/131127-cranberries-thanksgiving-native-americans-indians-food-history
2- The Cranberry Institute. (2019, May 1). About cranberries. Retrieved November 12, 2021, from https://www.cranberryinstitute.org/about-cranberries.