This is the time of year when nearly everyone in America entertainsthe thought of cranberries. Although it probably was not part of that firsthistoric feast, most people think of cranberry sauce next to their Thanksgivingturkey. Unfortunately it is more often than not sliced from a strange cylindricalloaf that slides from a can labeled “Ocean Spray.” This form of “cranberrysauce” had become so ubiquitous by the beginning of the 1960s that mymother-in-law actually received, as a gift, a Wm. Rogers Silverplate Cranberryset, designed specifically to serve a 15-ounce can of cranberry sauce.
Chances are that such finery was far from the minds of the Native Americanswho first created cranberry sauce long before any European settlers had arrivedon these shores. They would often eat cranberries raw, a practice which themodern inhabitants of the new world would probably find difficult at best.They prized the berry not only as a food but also as a fabric dye and a poulticefor wounds. It is commonly used now to help control urinary tract infections.
The acid content of cranberries is extremely high, which made them extremelyvaluable as a winter food because their shelf life more closely resemblesa half-life. To make their version of cranberry sauce, the tribes of theNortheast would sweeten it with maple sugar or honey.
The native name for the fruit is ibimi, or atoqua, or sassamanash, dependingon which tribe you were to ask. The name “cranberry” is derivedfrom the English settlers’ name for it: “craneberry.” Thesmall pink blossoms of the bush bear a resemblance to the head of a Sandhillcrane. Other sources attribute the name to the idea that cranes actuallyliked to eat the berries.
As far as I have been able to discover, there is no one farming cranberrieshere in Iowa, but I did find Regi’s Cranberries. Regi’s makesa collection of delicious prepared cranberry items like Cranberry & GingeredPear Sweet Salsa and Cranberry-Jalapeno jelly at their small kitchen inUrbandale (515-270-2999). To find the nearest (and therefore freshest)berries themselves, we must look to our neighbors to the north in Wisconsinand Minnesota. One of the best is Alder Lake Cranberries (www.alderlakecranberry.com) in Wisconsin. Theyare a family-owned farm that’s been growing strong for 57 years.
There are, no doubt, as many recipes for cranberry sauce as there areholiday cooks. Below are two, first the one I grew up with, then my slightlymore modern spin on the idea.
Grandma was famous in our family for writing out recipes that began withthings like “Take a bottle of cream…” without any indication,for those of us who grew up in the post-milkman era, what the size ofa “bottle” might be. And so here, in her own words, is herrecipe.
Grandma Friese’s Whole Cranberries
1 cup water, 1 cup Port wine, 1 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, lemon rind,all together to a boil for about 10 minutes.
Then add 1 lb. whole cranberries. Cook slowly so berries do not bursttoo much. After mixture looks about right, add one more cup of wine andlet cool.
That’s the whole thing. She used to make it way ahead of time andlet it ferment; it had quite a kick.
My recipe is a bit more complicated, but is also quite tasty.
2 lbs. fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar, or to taste
Water, to cover
1 orange, split
1 lemon, split
1 lime, split
2 whole nutmeg seeds, cracked
5 cardamom pods, cracked
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cups port wine
1/4 cup candied ginger, julienned
Place the orange, lemon, lime, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon in a cheeseclothpouch. Place in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the cranberries, thewater, and the sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and letsimmer for about an hour.
Add the port and the ginger, simmer an additional 5 minutes, then removeand let cool. Serve hot or cold.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotayand serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives withhis wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments maybe directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.