On November 23rd, 2016 we learned about

Truly traditional cranberry sauce can come in a can

As a kid, one of the highlights of a Thanksgiving meal was the can of jellied cranberry sauce. The weird suction noise it would make coming out of the can, the gelatin-like wiggle as it hit the plate, and of course the sugary taste were all great. I also remember grown-ups feeling the need to comment on how “inauthentic” a can of cranberry sauce was, although I suspect their critique may have been slightly misinformed. My can of cranberries certainly wasn’t at the first Thanksgiving, but then again, neither was any home-made version either. Cranberry sauce, like many other traditions, isn’t as timeless as we often think, and it’s current popularity actually owes a lot to being put into cans.

Gradual growth from a garnish

There’s basically no reason to believe anyone at the first Thanksgiving had cranberry sauce with their dinner. There was a tradition of garnishing meats with fruit sauces in England, but nobody was going through the trouble of cultivating and preparing the tart berries for a condiment in 1621. Interest in cranberries did pick up, but it really wasn’t until General Grant demanded cranberry sauce for his troops’ 1864 Thanksgiving meal that the tart fruit really reached a broader audience.

Aside from familiarity and interest, cranberries were a difficult crop to profit from. The plants can be a bit finicky about where they’ll grow, require a lot of water, and then have a short shelf life to deliver them to market. The 1905 Hayden Cranberry Separator helped reduce labor costs, as it could sort and wash 10,000 pounds of cranberries in a day. So-called “wet” harvesting also helped, since flooding a field of cranberry plants would cause ripe berries to detach and float to the water’s surface, bypassing days of fruit-picking by hand.

Canning and cooperatives

The biggest innovations for cranberry production came from an ex-lawyer named Marcus Urann. Urann helped push wet harvesting, invented the cranberry juice cocktail, and by 1941, gave us canned, jellied cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce wasn’t his invention, but canning the sauce allowed for a longer shelf life and easier distribution. Jellied cranberry sauce became so successful that today only five percent of American cranberries are sold fresh— most of the fruit is used in juices or the 5,062,500 gallons of sauce Americans eat each holiday season.

This success gave birth to what was originally the National Cranberry Association, and is now known as Ocean Spray. The company is technically a cooperative of farms, which Urann organized as a way to coordinate cranberry producers without running afoul of antitrust laws. Even if the food critics from my childhood dismissed the jellied berries, cranberry sauce’s biggest impact has definitely been connected to mass production and canning more than garnishing meats.

Source: This Man Made the First Canned Cranberry Sauce by K. Annabelle Smith, Smithsonian

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