What is not to love about the cranberry?
The berry’s gorgeous, soothing deep red color screams, “Hello, holiday cooking, I’m back!”. The raw fruit is highly acidic and bitter, is easily tamed by simmering in sugar and water (and maybe a few other goodies) to make cranberry sauce,
or baking into a delicious nutty pie,
or sugaring the fruit for a cheery holiday cake decoration.
Once its flavor profile is adjusted, cranberries add a distinct zing that makes it an excellent addition to both sweet and savory culinary dishes and many a pretty cocktail. The round, hard berries, harvested starting in late September lead to a scrupmtion season of delight from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
My fascination with cranberries began as a child growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, not too far from the Ocean Spray headquarters. We had only to drive twenty-five miles east to find acres of cranberry fields on the side of the road. My mother loved to stop at the Ocean Spray Cranberry House restaurant to pick up cranberry desserts. It must have been the cranberry zing she craved when she was pregnant and would ask one of us to drive to Wareham to get her a cranberry pastry.
Flowers, Berries, and Bogs
Early New England settlers called the cranberry a crane berry because the fruit’s pink blossom resembled the head and bill of a Sandhill Crane. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh for letting me use their striking image:
Cranberry fields look similar to other farmed fields in the summer.
It is the idea of what is to come once those fields are flooded and turn red with ripe cranberries that is exciting.
By late summer, you can see the red berries among the green vines carpeting the ground.
In September, the bogs are flooded, and the ripe red berries float to the surface.
If you dissect a cranberry, you will see four interior chambers filled with air and seeds. These air pockets allow the berries to float. The same air pockets cause berries to bounce when dropped and to pop when cooked as the air expands. As a middle-schooler taking Home Ec, our teacher taught us to rinse cranberries in a bowl of water and to only use the ones that floated. I still do that, just as I have never forgotten that we made cranberry jam and biscuits.
Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennials; some vines have been growing for over a hundred years. Cranberry bogs consist of different layers of soil. The first layer is a naturally occurring clay base. It keeps the ground watertight. Next is a layer of gravel for drainage, followed by a layer of spongy, acidic soil known as peat, and finally, a top layer of sand.
Originally, cranberries were picked by hand. In the 1890s wooden scoops with built-in screens were invented and replaced hand-picking. My friend, Kendra, has a marvelous collection of these harvest implements.
Later, in the 1920s, a “walk behind” mechanical harvester was invented, which is still used today for the ten percent of “dry-harvested” cranberries. These carefully handled cranberries are packaged in bags and sold for baking. By the way, if you are making a recipe written before 1980 that calls for “one bag of cranberries,” they mean a 16-ounce bag. In 1980, Ocean Spray switched to 12-ounce bags after a cranberry shortage. As far as weights and measurements go, a 12-ounce bag has 3½ cups of berries.
In 1960 a “wet harvesting” machine was invented. It required a foot of water piped into a bog to flood it.
Once flooded, the wet harvesting machine crawls over the field and dislodges berries from their vines, allowing them to float up to the surface
where they can be corralled.
Next, they are “vacuumed” by growers.
Ninety percent of cranberries used for juices, dried cranberries, and canned sauces are harvested in this manner.
I am indebted to Minda Bradley for photos of her family harvesting cranberries in Kingston, MA.
Sometimes, water is piped in before a winter freeze to protect vines from the cold. As the warm weather arrives, growers drain the fields to allow vines to come out of dormancy and begin their next growing season.
Cranberry plants were traded by early colonists in exchange for goods from Europe. Sailors ate the berries, high in vitamin C while crossing the sea to prevent scurvy. The plants were eventually transplanted to Europe, but soil conditions were not the same resulting in a different acid level and flavor. Lingonberry or English moss berry are examples of the European version of cranberries.
Ocean Spray Cranberries
Grower-owned Ocean Spray is a cooperative of over 700 farming families across North America who grow over 60% of the world’s cranberries. The cooperative was started in the 1930s in Wareham, MA. It is a treat to stumble on one of these old weathered Ocean Spray signs nestled on the side of the road in Cape Cod.
I picked a cranberry vine from a field to back to Nashville, to admire the berries long after I left New England. I tried to get it to root but did not have success.
Cranberry Recipes from Judy’s Chickens Blog!
Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie
Sorghum, Oats, and Cranberry Granola
Meera’s Arugula, Feta, Dried Cherry (or Cranberry) Salad with Toasted Almonds
Roasted Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries
Special thanks to my New England friends, Donna and Charlie Gibson, and Beth Hayes, for help with this story.
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© 2014-2022 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.
27 thoughts on “Growing Cranberries in Cape Cod”
Judy, I loved reading about how cranberries got their name, how they are grown, and how they were/are harvested. Thank you!! Recipes look yummy, too. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!
High praise coming from such a seasoned gardener! Thanks, Margaret. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too! xo Judy
Judy, thank you for another blog that “ripens” my heart for the season. And, the blog is always so interesting. Thanksgiving blessings to all, especially that beautiful new grandchild. Now you know why they are called Grand!
Thanks, Lina! My heart is filled with joy just thinking of my darling grandson. xoJudy
I love your blog and read it eagerly – particularly this one that focuses on our neighborhood-
So Dartmouth. Is Mrs Walker who made the pie Jane Walker, married to Bob Walker? If so, they are our neighbors in the summer. They built a house near us in Birchfield.
Anyway have a very happy thanksgiving.
Carolyn M. Osteen
ROPES & GRAY LLP
Yes! Their daughter, Tish, was part of our gang of friends who played together once all the summer folk left for the winter. We played in every square inch of Bay View and Birchfield, including the huge cornfields in front of the Walker’s stately home.
It was so much fun to figure out that author and Bay View neighbor, Erin McHugh and I were making the same pie for Thanksgiving. Please show Mrs. Walker my post if you get a chance. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. See you in the Spring! xo Judy
Judy, what a magnificent article! I didn’t know I wanted to know so much about cranberries until you wrote it and I read it. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving! You are a treasure. XOXOXO
Thank you, Cathy! So sweet. Happy Thanksgiving to you, especially as you begin to make memories in your new house. Miss you on the street. xo Judy
I loved reading about cranberries. Our family has Nantucket Cranberry Pie from Aunt Connie, who was brought up on the Cape. It is the same pie! I’ve never seen the recipe elsewhere before. Connie took it to every family Thanksgiving for years and while a few of us had the recipe, we never made it when she was coming as she was sure to bring it and loved getting the kudos for it. You other recipe are also inviting and I am planning on making the relish.
Many thanks for taking the time to write such an interesting blog.
Jan, that is so funny. Nantucket Cranberry Pie from Aunt Connie. Wow! We need to find the origin of this recipe. I just Googled Ocean Spray’s website and there is nothing similar there. Maybe it was in the newspaper years ago and lots of people saw it there. Thanks so much for sharing that!
You’ve taught me some interesting things about cranberries, Judy! Never heard the thing about the name before. Also, didn’t know the white ones will turn red when cooked! Must experiment one day 🙂
I have baked three apple-cranberry cakes in three weeks – just love having that on hand for a not-too-sweet snack, suitable pretty much any time of day. Or night. I tried adding pumpkin puree to a couple of cakes also, and got a very dense but still tasty result – texture of a boiled pudding, I think. Even with the losses to critters who will not be named, I have So Much Pumpkin from my garden this year! Anything I can possible add pumpkin puree to, will probably experience that modification at some point this winter.
Thanks for the fun post!
Quinn, thanks for all the comments. My husband and I were out on a walk and as your string of comments came in, I read each them out loud to him. We both enjoyed the notes. He was like, and how do you know her? I told him how we’d never met, in person, but that we read each other’s blog and we converse online. It makes the world smaller. I’m going to look for your cranberry cake recipe.eel certain you posted it last year. Keep on writing and keeping like beautiful and simple. Happy Thanksgiving!
Oh, Judy, I do hope you will make the cranberry apple mosaic cake, because you are such a good cook you will probably improve it and then share the improvements with ME!
Thanks, Quinn. I’d love to make it. I’ll let you know once I get pong on it. Happy Thanksgiving!
I’m coming back to read this again more slowly so I don’t miss anything. This morning is a hit-the-ground-running kind of day. I will say that until I was grown my only exposure to cranberries was canned jellied cranberry sauce. “Cranberry sauce in the shape of a can”~~quote from Ernest Saves Christmas. Thankfully since then my horizons have broadened. And thanks for the heads up about the change in bag sizes. I just discovered that boxed cake mix has also shrunk. Pooh on the food industry. Oh….and Happy Thanksgiving!
Thank you! You were one of the nice people to come out MDK’s introduction of my blog to the masses last year. I am so grateful for the online conversation we have begun. I probably would have been one of those people Ernest was talking about if I hadn’t learned to make cranberry jelly in home ec. I hope you try this recipe. I’ve got all of the ingredients out now to make a batch. You will end up with about 10 tasting spoons in the sink by the time you are through! Happy Thanksgiving!
Love this post, Judy!!! What a history – and lovely photos. Thanks!
Thank you, Mary! It was a lot of fun to write. Getting ready to make my Grandmother’s cranberry chutney and a batch of plain chutney now. Lots of good memories. xo