A Short History of the Cranberry

I am making cranberry sauce for the first time ever. Because I am a historian, I decided to read up on cranberries. Did they appear at the first Thanksgiving? Is there a reason we eat them as a sauce or (shudder) jelly from a can? Let’s find out!

Cranberries are related to blueberries and can only grow in specific conditions: sandy soil and an acidic water source. In the wild, cranberries range from north Georgia to the Maritimes (Canada), and from the East Coast to Minnesota. According to Rutgers, Americans eat about 80 million pounds of cranberries on Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, however, probably did not eat cranberry sauce, since they had very little sugar. While Native Americans harvested and ate cranberries, the Europeans did not like the tartness and so made desserts, sauces, etc.  Cranberry pies and tarts are recorded starting in 1672.  (However, Ree Drummond offers a cranberry sauce recipe that uses maple syrup, so it’s possible the Pilgrims ate their cranberries with syrup or honey instead of sugar.)

Cranberry history can be difficult to track. As the Food Timeline points out,

Most Americans associate cranberries with Thanksgiving turkey. They are often classed as “New World” food. Not entirely true. Botanists and linguists confirm several varieties of berries, from different parts of the northern temperate regions, have been called “cranberry.” Early recipes are challenging to identify because the cranberrry [sic] was also known by host of alternative local names (fenwort, for example). Native North Americans had yet another vocabulary developed for this fruit.

How did cranberries become associated with turkey, then? John Ayto suggests it is thanks to German and Scandinavian immigrants:

Cranberries grow in Britain, but in medieval times they went under a variety of names such as marsh-wort, fen-wort, and moss-berry. The term cranberry did not appear until the late seventeenth century, in America. It was a partial translation of kranberry, literally ‘craneberry,’ brought across the Atlantic by German immigrants (the German word is an allusion to the plant’s long, beaklike stamens). It was the Germans and Scandinavians, too, who probably popularized the notion of eating cranberries with meat in the English-speaking world, which led to today’s pairing of turkey with cranberry sauce.

As for Thanksgiving specifically, legend has it that Ulysses S. Grant is responsible for making cranberry sauce a part of Thanksgiving. (I’ve had trouble finding academic sites to support this, hence “legend.”) Grant served it to his troops during the Civil War.

While the Pilgrims might not have had cranberry sauce, they might have had cranberries: Native Americans in New Jersey and Massachusetts cultivated the berries. Dried cranberries were an important part of pemmican, a food most of us have heard of but know little about (a mixture of dried meat and dried fruit). Native Americans used cranberries as medicine and dye as well as food. Soon, colonial sailors began using cranberries as they not only prevented scurvy but could be dried and stored for long periods of time.

It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that cranberries were harvested in a large-scale way: Massachusetts was home to the first human-made cranberry bogs in 1816.

The first modern commercial cranberry sauce was created in 1917. Elizabeth Lee created the first sauce that we would recognize: berries, sugar, spices. It was a few more years before she was able to successfully sell her sauce, eventually leading to the founding of Ocean Spray.

Unfortunately, people in the past didn’t record recipes the way we do now: Few cookbooks exist pre-1890s and recipes often lack exact times, measurements, and temperatures. Still, a cranberry sauce recipe from 1840 (Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, Eliza Leslie) is recognizable:


Wash a quart of ripe cranberries, and put them into a pan with about a wine-glass of water. Stew them slowly, and stir them frequently, particularly after they begin to burst. They require a great deal of stewing, and should be like a marmalade when done. Just before you take them from the fire, stir in a pound of brown sugar.

When they are thoroughly done, put them into a deep dish, and set them away to get cold.

You may strain the pulp through a cullender or sieve into a mould, and when it is in a firm shape send it to table on a glass dish. Taste it when it is cold, and if not sweet enough, add more sugar. Cranberries require more sugar than any other fruit, except plums.

Cranberry sauce is eaten with roast turkey, roast fowls, and roast ducks.

In 1918, Fannie Farmer (The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook) offered a more exact recipe:

Pick over and wash three cups cranberries. Put in a stewpan, add one and one-fourth cups sugar and one cup boiling water, and boil ten minutes. Care must be taken that they do not boil over. Skim and cool.

I just decided to use the top recipe from Allrecipes. This recipe, along with many others, includes orange juice, which is absent from the recipes quoted above.  The juice provides a nice compliment to the berries. My test batch was pretty good and I hope to repeat those results on Thursday.

Happy eating!

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