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Why Cranberries Are Awesome

Why Cranberries Are Awesome

Rebecca Chapa | Chef's Blade

Tart and unassuming, the humble cranberry will once again take second seat to many Thanksgiving turkey this year. Cranberries have certainly earned a spot at every American Thanksgiving table, and to omit them from this harvest celebration would be extremely unconventional. I had a chance to learn a bit more about our favorite seasonal side dish firsthand at a talk at Nantucket’s Whaling Museum in Fall 2008 given by second generation cranberry farmer Tom Larrabee Jr. His father has worked in Nantucket’s bogs since he was a teenager and has managed them since 1959.

Cranberries were first harvested in Dennis, Massachusetts (Cape Cod) in 1816 by Henry Hall. Named for the resemblance of its flowers to the head of a crane, early producers discovered that the vine, closely related to the blueberry, was an ideal mate for the Massachusetts geography. Their presence at the Thanksgiving meal is likely due to the fact that this was also a symbol of peace to Native Americans. Cranberries enjoy peat bogs which provide moisture for the vines during the growing season, but they also benefit from covering the vines with sand. Sand stimulates new growth of the roots, controls insects, and prevents the disintegrating peat from being toxic to the plant. The third requirement is fresh water for frost protection, irrigation, and, since the 1980s, harvesting. As a result in 1857 settlers of Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, decided that planting cranberries on the peat marshes off of Milestone Road would be a good idea. Cranberries had already garnered a great reputation for seafarers as their presence on ships prevented sailors from getting scurvy due to their high content of Vitamin C. Cranberries still have these wonderful health benefits and in addition an incredible amount of antioxidants and an antiseptic nature that allows them to be useful to prevent bladder infections and eradicate E. Coli.

The cranberry and Nantucket seemed a perfect pair. Despite the fact that Nantucket produces fewer cranberries than Wisconsin (the largest U.S. producer), those that know the island think of it as a hub of production. Currently, Nantucket has about 250 acres of cranberry bogs and 25 of the 37 acres in the Windswept Bog are organically grown producing 1/2 a million pounds of organic cranberries in 2008. Production of organic berries typically yields 60-70% less than conventional production and takes a lot more effort, but organic berries garner three times the price of conventional berries. Since 1968 the Nantucket Conservation Foundation has stewarded the island’s two commercial bogs.