If the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving was anything like mine, cranberries were a crowd favorite. Opening a can of the jellied cranberry sauce, they let it fall onto a small plate with a mighty slooorp. Still perfectly retaining the shape of the can, it was then sliced into thin disks that would fit perfectly on leftover turkey sandwiches to be consumed later that evening while watching football.

Right. Not so much. That first Thanksgiving included very few of the elements we have come to associate with the holiday. No potatoes, mashed or otherwise. Pumpkin was there, but pie was a luxury not yet available to them. No stuffing, no sweet corn, and not a jello salad in sight. Even the presence of turkey is questionable, but there sure was plenty of deer meat.

Of course, canned cranberry sauce was still hundreds of years away. But  cranberries were very likely on the menu.

Cranberries are one of only three now commercially common fruits native to North America (Concord grapes and blueberries are the others). It was a mainstay in Native American culture. Used as medicine, as dye and often blended with dried deer meat and rendered fat as a sustenance food, cranberries were a valued commodity long before the Pilgrims arrived.

It was also regarded as a symbol of peace by the Native Americans, making it a likely offering at that first Thanksgiving.

A brief history of the cranberry

1550 Wild cranberries a recognized staple of Native American culture.

1621 First Thanksgiving takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

1670s The name “cranberry” is coined by German immigrants (previously known by settlers as “fenberries”).

1683 Cranberry juice first produced by settlers.

1816 Capt. Hull of Massachusetts produces first cultivated cranberry crop.

1840s Cranberries become a common commercial crop.

1850s Cranberries commonly carried on sailing vessels to stave off scurvy.

1910 Improvements to mechanical harvesting equipment reduce labor requirements and increase production.

1912 Marcus Urann, a lawyer and cranberry grower, develops a method for large scale canning of cranberry sauce and founds the  Ocean Spray company to distribute his creation.

1930 Ocean Spray merges with largest competitors, capturing 70% of the commercial market.

1953 Yearly U.S. cranberry production reaches 100 million pounds.

1959 An unfounded health scare causes a crash in the cranberry market. Recovery takes years.

1960 The introduction of “Cran-Apple” juice cocktail advances the popularity of cranberry beverages.

1960s Water harvesting, in which bogs are flooded and cranberries are skimmed from the water’s surface, becomes standard in the industry.

1980s International marketing of cranberry juices drastically increases demand.

1990 Ocean Spray introduces Craisins (dried cranberries) to resounding popularity.

2011 U.S. cranberry production reaches an annual yield of 681 million pounds.

Juice products aside, is estimated that 20% of cranberries produced in the United States are consumed during the week of Thanksgiving.

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