First come wild strawberries, early in spring, then blackberries and dewberries, then red and black raspberries, then the blues. They have pedigrees, this group, some thorny but always bright, smart pedigrees.

Scattershot among the swells, here in the Northeast, are a mob of suspicious characters—ground hurts, crows, mountain ash, wild raisin, chokecherry, sweet pear, cloudy bakeapple—berry oddballs from the bush leagues. But take a cue from the birds and give them a go when the getting’s good.

Sitting awkwardly in this mixed company, betwixt and between the haves and have nots, are the late-season cranberries, dutiful minor leaguers who answer the perennial call up to the majors for a brief candent appearance, then are sent back down to the wastelands—to bog, barren, and heath—until November rolls around once more. They deserve better, and it wasn’t always so.

Native Americans knew a good berry when they saw one, and they knew how to wring every bit of goodness from it. They took the cranberry, one of the few sui generis fruits to North American soil, and squeezed it for dyestuff, chopped the unripe fruit for poultices (thus tapping the natural antibiotic properties), took it as a symbol of peace. They also ate it: in fritters, puddings, succotash; when eaten simple, they were known to add wild honey or maple sugar to cut the tartness. And cranberries redeemed pemmican, that native road-food patty of dried cranberry, smoked venison, fat, and wild onion, which when met face-to-face will be appreciated as an acquired (or circumstantially required) taste, not unlike that other ancient survivance, haggis.

Nor were Europeans, when they hit these shores, ignorant of the cranberry. In a Danish Bronze Age tomb archaeologists found a mug containing cranberry juice dregs (cranberry, bog myrtle, and honey—the Cranapple of its day). The European variety is smaller than its North American counterpart, grows all along the northern fringe, Scandinavia to Siberia, goes by a hundred names, including lingonberry and preiselberry. In Scotland and northern England, cranberry tarts were part of the “unwritten tradition of peasant cookery,” according to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book.

Grigson also notes that cranberries are still known as crones and cranes in parts of Great Britain, and she goes on: “Why are they called 
cranberries? Americans…say because the flowers are like a crane’s head. More probably and practically, if less poetically (why bother about the flowers), it is because cranes (which used to be common in Britain) and cranberries are both at home in the bogs.”

The hard-put early colonists loved their cranberries, not leastwise their familiarity (though plumper and, some said, tastier than the European) and especially their waxy skin, which kept the berries fresh a good long time. Whalers ate them while at sea to ward off scurvy. Household larders considered them a staple and used them every which way: in cakes and toasts, in stews, salads, biscuits, breads, for dressings, garnishes, spreads, stuffing, sauces, and relishes. Plus those desserts: sherberts, squares, shortcakes, and on and on. Recipes were appearing in colonial cookbooks as early as 1663.

As these were wild berries, an element in the common holding, folks were protective of them. Wampanoags had by 1845 legally protected the cranberry grounds on Martha’s Vineyard; in the late-18th century the New Jersey legislature passed an act fining anyone who dared to pick a berry before October 10th, while in Massachusetts, where autumn came that much earlier, access was granted on September 20th.

The American cranberry—which first went under cultivation in 1816 on Cape Cod—favors a boggy environment, watery and acidic, and it appreciates a coat of sand to keep the competition—weeds and insects—in check. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are the main commercial venues, with New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario also adding their share (plus a handful of independents from cranberry outbacks, like Tennessee and Georgia).

The majority of harvest cranberries are destined to be dried or turned into juice, jelly, or sauce. These are the berries that conjure spectacular scarlet carpets on the autumn bogscape, once the grounds have been flooded and the water reels have churned the water with enough vigor to loose the berry from its trailing vine. The berries are herded into a corner of the bog and collected. For the fresh market, the berries are dry harvested with rigs that resemble mechanical combs, which replaced the lovely cranberry hand scoop, or the berries are water raked after a light flooding. The job of the cranberry inspector is made simple because ripe berries bounce. They are shuttled into a contraption that gives them seven tries to try to bounce over a four-inch hurdle. Bounce, berry, bounce, or get the culler’s axe. And yes, cranberries are also known (unpoetically, as Grigson would say) as bounce berries.

Ocean Spray, a growers cooperative formed in 1930, now handles much of the production and distribution of cranberries. Over 70% of all cranberry growers are members of the cooperative, and they have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinarily successful promotional team. Ocean Spray has run some of the cleverest, most appealing advertisements in the history of television, and they introduced juice boxes back in the early 1980s. Nor have they shied from trying new things, once going out on a limb with a viscous cranberry syrup intended for use with alcohol, which bombed, and fruit juice combos, which took off like a Roman candle.

Growers concentrate on five varieties of Vaccinium macrocarpon, the American cranberry, but like all fruits, cranberries possess quirky varieties (there are over 100 all told) that would be a guaranteed experience to track down. There you are in a high alpine meadow, the wind biting and the first snow dusting the elevation (the later the cranberry is picked, the sweeter it is) following a tip that the meadow harbors the rare Thoughtful Bird cranberry. Or try to score a Potter’s Favorite, see if you can distinguish between it and a Searles Jumbo or a Bud’s Blue (who was Bud? why are his berries blue?).

Cranberries, the unlikely edible: red and tart, signals that trigger a warning light in the reptilian core of our brain, deep down in the survival mechanism–beware that color, and where’s the sweetness? (It took a hero—flying in the face of instinct—to push on, to tinker and coax delight from the pop-skull tartness. Perhaps it was that brewmeister back in Bronze Age Denmark. Well, skoal to you, my friend.) Though I only hazard this guess, I’d wager it was the increasing availability of naturally sweet berries and fruits, native and imported—those mentioned above plus apples and pears, currants, the stone fruits—that drove the tart cranberry from our collective consciousness and relegated it to holiday-only status.

But the cranberry is a tenacious old soul and it has slowly been insinuating itself back into our pantries over the past twenty years, mostly as a juice, but also fresh and dried. One important reason for this is the cranberry’s reputation as a health-giver. I like to think that it also may have something to do with the growing appreciation of regional foods—and by extension our sense of place—that we may be rediscovering the ability to know a good berry when we see one. And eat it.

(from The Vinegar Factory)