What’s bright red, named after a bird, tart and tangy, and bounces? Yes, bounces. The answer is . . . the cranberry. This little fact is more than amusing trivia. In the mid-1800s, John “Peg-Leg” Webb let his cranberry crop roll down the barn stairs, rather than attempting to carry it down on his one leg, and noticed that the good fruit bounced and the bad fruit just stayed wherever it landed. The “bounceboard separator,” which is still used today, is a direct result of his observation.
Cranberries, one of only three commercially grown native North American fruits, (blueberries and concord grapes are the others) were first cultivated in Massachusetts. It is said they got their name either from the crane-like shape of the blossom or from the fact that they provided a good source of nutrient rich food for the cranes along the coastline. Native Americans used the berries medicinally—they made poultices to treat poisonous arrow wounds, used them fresh and dried in their cooking, and even made a pigment from them to dye rugs. Later, whalers discovered cranberries prevented scurvy, and in the past 20 years, study after study has solidified cranberries’ important role in preventing urinary tract infections. On our modern Thanksgiving table, we may serve cranberries for their health benefits or because of a deeply routed holiday tradition: it is believed that Native Americans brought cranberries cooked in maple syrup to that very first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1621.
Then again, we may serve cranberries on Thanksgiving because we love their tart tangy flavor—and the idea of a bouncing fruit.
—By Marge Perry, a food writer in Tenafly, N.J.