Thanksgiving is right around the corner. If you’re anything like us, you’re probably busily preparing, and might even be buying ingredients for some of your recipes, or even cooking ahead to make things a little easier the day of the holiday.
Of course, next to Turkey and Stuffing, nothing says Thanksgiving quite as much as cranberry sauce or cranberry salad.
But, have you ever thought about how odd that is, really? Cranberries aren’t exactly the tastiest berry out there, and plenty of people eat strawberry jam or raspberry preserves all year round. But if you’re a cranberry sauce lover, good luck. Most grocery stores only stock cranberry sauce for a couple of months out of the year.
So, how did cranberry sauce become part of the typical American diet, and how did it get so common that canning companies started making cranberry sauce you could serve straight out of the can?
Here’s the story:
Origins Before The Country Was Founded
One of the most and least surprising things about cranberry sauce is that we aren’t actually sure when the sauce originated.
We do know that the first extant recorded instance of someone talking about something that might be cranberry sauce, cranberries boiled with sugar and served as a sauce on meat, was in the American colonies back in 1672.
That doesn’t mean that that was the first instance of cranberry sauce though, or even that it was close to the origin of the food.
Chances are that Native American peoples were eating cranberry sauce, or something like it, long before colonial settlers picked up on the trend.
Of course, Native American versions of the sauce wouldn’t have included sugar, at least not the kind of sugar we eat today or that settlers would have been eating in the colonies.
Instead, they probably used other natural sweeteners like honey. Or they might have treated cranberries a bit like chokecherries, which are also bitter but can be cooked into a sweeter mash by concentrating them. Heating berries tends to bring out the sweetness in them, so Native Americans who lived in or near cranberry habitats might have relied on concentrating them to make them more palatable.
Or, maybe the natural sour flavor of cranberries wasn’t a problem in those cultures. We probably won’t ever know for sure.
How Did Colonial Settlers Get Introduced To Cranberries?
To understand how cranberries got to be a regular part of Thanksgiving celebrations, you need to understand that some of the origins of the Thanksgiving myth are based in real things that happened, if not the way you were taught in school.
Cranberries are native to North America, and like a lot of other native foods here, settlers in North America had probably never seen anything quite like them before.
Not to mention that a lot of berries that taste sour the way cranberries do are toxic. Cranberries aren’t, but someone who didn’t know they were edible might avoid them just in case.
However, there were native peoples here before the settlers, and they did already know about cranberries and included them as a regular part of their diets.
The Narragansett tribe knew cranberries as sasemineash, and the Algonquin and Wampanoag tribes, which both had close contact with New England settlers, called cranberries sassamenesh.
Undoubtedly, it was these tribes who first introduced the English settlers of the time to the food, and they probably also passed along cooking tips for how to make the berries more palatable as part of a regular diet.
In fact, these tribes did teach many skills to the colonial settlers at the time, from what foods to eat, to how to best plant and raise local products that European farmers had never seen before.
Cranberries, to Native peoples, were an important food source. It was a common ingredient in pemmican, a combination of dried fruits, mostly berries, along with dried fish or meat and melted tallow. Pemmican was an important way to store food long-term for the Tribes and was also an nutrient-rich meal to help keep people going during long hunts and other work-intensive activities.
Cranberries themselves are also a nutritionally important food for early Native American and later Colonial American life. The berries are a good source of fiber, have lots of carbs for easy energy, have a small amount of naturally occurring sugars, and are also a source of plenty of vitamins and antioxidants.
While the Thanksgiving myth is a myth for many reasons, there probably were quite a few shared meals between Native American tribes people and colonial settlers. Early in colonialism, settlers and Native Americans are thought to have had a much less adversarial relationship, though still a complicated and occasionally violent one.
Of course, the English also had a big impact on what we know as cranberry sauce today. Sugar was one of the major trade goods in the Transatlantic trade ecosystem that developed from the 16th to 19th centuries.
So sugar, especially the refined white sugar that was becoming available for the first time because of the sugar plantations further South, would probably have been added to the recipe as soon as sugar was reasonably available in the colonies.
They probably wouldn’t have added as much sugar as we do today though. For one thing, sugar was expensive and supplies were limited since the bulk of the product would have been shipped back to Europe, or used as a trade good in Africa. Colonists wouldn’t have had the money needed for a lot of sugar, especially since they would have had to pay enough to make it worth ocean merchant’s time, since even in the colonies, sugar was an import, mostly from Caribbean islands.
Other common ingredients in cranberry sauce, like orange or lemon peel, would probably have been added to help improve the flavor without relying entirely on sugar to overcome the natural sour bitter flavor of cranberries.
When Do We Know People In The Colonies Were Eating Cranberries?
We’ve already talked about the first mention of something that might be an early cranberry sauce in 1672. However, we have more substantial proof of cranberries being a common food a little while after that.
In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, which was both the first ever American cookbook (that we know of), and also the first mention of cranberries in an American cookbook. Amelia did call them cramberries instead of cranberries, but she was clearly talking about the same berry.
Recipes at the time were more guidelines than strict instructions, and Amelia Simmon’s cranberry recipe wasn’t for cranberry sauce it was for cranberry pie filling.
However, by 1876, The Home Cook Books recommended a very similar recipe for cranberry lovers, and this time, for the first time, the dish was called cranberry sauce.
The Evolution Of Modern Cranberry Sauce
So how did we get from cranberry pie filling to the modern version of cranberry sauce most Americans get from a can at the store?
There are a lot of different ways that cranberries and cranberry sauce changed over the years.
Recipes in the 20th century for cranberry sauce were highly varied, and often called for other fruits like pears or apples, likely to help add sweetness, and give the sauce a slightly different flavor. Spiced cranberry sauce was another common version of the dish, and called for typical dessert spices, like cinnamon and clove, for a very different finish than what we have today.
There was even a Cranberry Song, on record with The American Folklife Center, which was first recorded in Wisconsin in 1946.
The fruit must have been at least somewhat popular because raising and picking cranberries is not easy work. Berries had to be gathered by hand, often in flooded bogs that let the cranberries float, but also sometimes in sandy fields that weren't suitable for many other crops.
Unfortunately, like many uniquely American products from cotton to tobacco, as cranberry popularity and demand grew, work conditions got worse. The story of the American cranberry is also one of unsafe working conditions, incredibly long work days, and both child and slave labor.
Still in the 20th century, after slavery ended, a lot of the work of picking cranberries was done by immigrants, who likely did whatever work was on offer, even when working conditions were poor and pay was slim.
In a lot of ways, the story of cranberry sauce mirrors the story of the United States and how we came to be.
That said, today, cranberry production is still labor-intensive, but water-harvested berries can be harvested with a more mechanized process. Dry-harvested cranberries, where the field isn't flooded for harvest, are still harvested by hand.
As for the sauce? Well, while plenty of people still make delicious cranberry sauce by hand, adding cranberries and sugar, water, and often orange peels, other fruits, and sometimes spices, the most familiar and classic form of cranberry sauce is the thick, almost jelly-like sauce you can get out of a can.
This cranberry sauce usually calls for cranberries, sugar, and yes, some orange juice to create the classic flavor we all associate with Thanksgiving.
Of course, if you’re looking for extra points on Thanksgiving, you can always can your own jellied cranberry sauce. If you go that route, you can stick to the traditional cranberry and orange flavor, or experiment with other versions of the sauce like cranberry and pear, or spiced cranberries.
Or, for a real adventure, you could try making fresh cranberry sauce this year, with fresh berries, sugar, and other ingredients. Serve it as a topping for your Thanksgiving Turkey!
Just… Don’t forget the gravy. Trust us on this one.