The Amazing Cranberry: More Than a Thanksgiving Side Dish

The Amazing Cranberry: More Than a Thanksgiving Side Dish

There are many seasonal and holiday foods that appear on supermarket shelves throughout the year. Halloween and Valentine’s Day bring out candy. There is lamb for Easter and corn beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s Day. Thanksgiving is all about turkey, and I know folks who always prepare their family recipe for stuffing or gravy that has been handed down through the generations.

My favorite Thanksgiving food is the amazing side dish of cranberry sauce. In fact, I enjoy cranberries year-round both as a juice and dehydrated like raisins for snacking and adding to applesauce, muffins and even rice.

For several years I have made homemade cranberry sauce for our Thanksgiving meal. I looked up several recipes for ideas and added a few twists of my own. Now my kids have also tried their hand at it, and the tradition continues. This week I’ll be searching the produce section of the market for bags of fresh unprocessed whole cranberries.

In honor of Thanksgiving and the amazing cranberry, I did some research about cranberries – an iconic New England plant now eaten around the world.

The Wild Cranberry

Cranberries were introduced to New England colonists by Native Americans and may have been included in what is now thought of as the first Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people. They are a wild plant (Vaccinium macrocarpon) found from eastern Canada, throughout New England, the upper Midwestern states and south to North Carolina.

Cranberries grow in acidic wet soils such as peat bogs and swampy areas, pine-barrens and coastal habitats. They are a trailing woody plant that grows vine-like close to the ground with roots and stems attached to below-ground rhizomes. The woody stems can grow a foot tall and the leaves are small, leathery and evergreen. In the fall they ripen to firm, juicy bright red berries. Raw, unprocessed cranberries are very tart with small seeds inside a rather hollow, light berry with whitish-pink flesh.

The Commercial Cranberry Business

I always look for commercial cranberry bogs when driving to Cape Cod. In summer they are seen as wide-open fields with several dry, shallow man-made ponds surrounded with large irrigation pipes. To harvest berries in the fall, the ponds are flooded with water to float the berries to the surface. Harvesting is very picturesque as the surface of the ponds are solid red with berries. Folks in hip-waders corral the floating fruit with tethered nets to the side of the pond where they are loaded into waiting wagons. It’s a scene ready for an iconic New England photograph.

The New England Historical Society has an interesting article on the history of cranberry bogs that can be found at its website:

“The first cranberry entrepreneur, Henry Hall of Dennis, Mass., noticed that his cranberry plants thrived when sand blew over them. He figured out how to transplant cranberry vines, fence them in, spread sand on them and flood the cranberry bogs at harvest time. That way, the cranberries floated to the top for easy picking.

Word spread about Henry Hall’s technique and cranberry bogs began flourishing in Southeastern Massachusetts. Some Massachusetts vines are more than 150 years old.

The cranberry industry advanced further when Marcus Libby Urann abandoned his profession as a lawyer to buy a cranberry bog. Urann made the first canned cranberry sauce.

In 1930, he joined with two other cranberry growers to found the cooperative that became Ocean Spray. Ocean Spray bottled and sold Cranberry Juice Cocktail starting in the mid-1930s. Urann is buried in Hanson, Mass., deep in cranberry country.”

While Massachusetts still has several cranberry operations, Connecticut only has one still in business, Killingworth Cranberries. The bog has been maintained for decades and today the Bishop family keeps the bog and harvests the berries for sale at Bishop’s Orchard. They follow the traditions of former owners, the Evarts family. For information check out their website at:

How to Make Homemade Cranberry Sauce

It is very easy to make your own cranberry sauce with only two primary ingredients, whole berries and sugar. The berries are very tart making sugar the key to a palatable jelly sauce.

I start with one part berries to one-half part of sugar or 16 oz. (2 cups) of berries to 8 oz. (1 cup) of sugar. I try to avoid eating processed white sugar as much as I can and will cut the sugar with real maple syrup or honey. I also add orange peel zest and cinnamon to taste. I heat the sugar and berries with a little water, 4 oz. or ½ cup per 16 oz. of berries to keep them from burning, and add the orange and cinnamon after it starts to bubble.

Cranberries are naturally high in pectin so they gel easily when heated. As the sauce congeals, I whip it with a spoon, check for the desired combination of tart and sweet and then put it in a glass container to refrigerate until the meal is served.

It seems wherever I travel in the country I find cranberry juice, sauce and dehydrated cranberries in “raisin” form. This little humble berry, with deep roots to New England and Thanksgiving, is now found the world over. I hope you’ll consider making your own cranberry sauce for your meal, and give praise for the amazing cranberry. Have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Information for this column was sourced from Northern Woodlands Magazine, Autumn 2020, “Cranberries: The Secret in the Sauce,” by Benjamin Lord, the New England Historical Society website, Six Cranberry Bogs Throughout New England, and the3foragers blog.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at


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