The holidays come with many treasured memories. I would have to say the one that stands out in most people’s minds is the wonderful food that comes along with it. We look forward to the turkey dinners, the mashed potatoes, sage dressing with yams, salads, olives and that bowl of beautiful red cranberries that seem to sit alone. They always caught our eye as a child, but we didn’t really know what they were. Eventually, curiosity got the best of us and we had to dig in with a big spoonful and eat them in one gulp. Of course, we expected a nice, sweet candy taste, but what we ended up with was a very tart and sour flavor in our mouths that we had to swallow to uphold our created façade of manners! Of course we never repeated that same act twice during the holiday. For the years that followed, we continued to eye these berries but never attempted them again.
The cranberry has always been a popular item during the holidays. As kids, we thought their only use was for color on the table or to string for garland on the old country tree during Christmas with popcorn. There were many uses for them, but we never dreamt that they were actually for eating! We even affirmed this concept after actually tasting them in a brave attempt of courage. As with many types of food, the things we hate to eat as children seem to become enjoyable as adults. Either our tastebuds are the first thing to go or we actually acquire a taste for something different.
History shows that the American Indians started to use cranberries in their diets in day-to-day living prior to colonization of the United States. They used these berries for dye, antibiotics and to stop bleeding. It is also said that they cooked the berries with honey or maple syrup to produce a sauce for eating. Many say that this sauce was first introduced to the colonizers during early Thanksgiving feasts through the entire holiday season.
The most common cranberry grown today is the American cranberry. It is the largest of the cranberries that are native to the northern states and is also a cousin to the blueberry. The southern cranberry is smaller and not as commercially beneficial. They primarily grow as a low evergreen shrub with vine-type branches in sandy acidic bogs. They have small round leaves on long, slim, wiry stems that produce pink flowers in the spring and white berries throughout the summer months. In the fall, these berries ripen to a brilliant red color and are larger than the actual leaves of the plant.
Most of the world's cranberries are grown in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington and Oregon along with the two Canadian providences of British Columbia and Quebec. The total amount of the cranberries grown comes from a mere 42,000 acres of land. Ninety-five percent of the crop is made into juice, sauce or dried with only 5 percent grown for fresh berry sales.
When ripe, the berry has a tough, plump feel to it and can actually bounce when dropped at its peak at picking time. The cranberry itself is made up of 90 percent water and contains tiny air bubbles inside the berry that cause it to float in water. Since these plants produce a great number of berries during harvest time, the commercial growing fields are usually flooded so all of the dislodged berries float to the surface and are skimmed off for shipping. This process also keeps the berries from becoming bruised and damaged during the harvest time that may occur with "dry" picking.
Growing cranberry plants in our area can be quite a challenge as they would be out of their element. Our soils are sandy and alkaline, whereas the soils needed for the cranberry need to be moist and acidic. But if you are up for the challenge, by all means attempt to grow the plant and see what comes of it. It may be one of high maintenance and tending, but you may just be rewarded with a few berries if you maintain them properly.
Not only is the cranberry known for its place during the holiday meals, it is also known to have many health benefits. Studies show that consumption of the cranberry either in fresh or natural juice form (without added sugars) can prevent urinary tract infection, lower bad cholesterol and raise the good, aid in the recovery of a stroke, prevent the formation of kidney stones and potentially help prevent certain types of cancer. Processed and cooked cranberries have the least amount of benefits for your health as compared to their fresh condition.
Whatever the benefits may be with the cranberry, either in juice or berry form, it has become a wonderful element of the holiday traditions. It is great used in foods, for cooking, desserts, dried as a snack, placed on the garland of a Christmas tree, filled in a vase of water for decorative purposes or as a juice mixed with ice or your favorite spirits. Whatever the use you have in mind, you will find it is a wonderful berry with all sorts flavor and possibilities.
I know throughout the holiday season, I will be looking forward to that bright red side dish of cranberries at the table. I still may not have the courage to indulge in them, but I know people who swear by the tradition and say it just would not be holidays without them. With or without them, I am sure there will be plenty of food in which to indulge.
Funny, I never thought of the cranberry’s various benefits when I first choked down a spoonful during my childhood. Maybe there was some truth into the comment that mom use to say, “Eat some, it is good for you.” Hmmmm, it just might be.