How Cranberries Went Out of Style

The sour little berries, once a year-round staple, have been relegated to a Thanksgiving side dish. Can they make a comeback?

A man uses a harvest implement while standing in a cranberry bog.
A worker harvests cranberries in Carver, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, which, for most Americans, marks the one time a year their dinner table is adorned with jewellike cranberries, simmered into a delicious sauce. But hundreds of years ago, cranberry sauce was a mainstay of daily meals all around the United States. How did this acidic, tannic berry, so hard to love in its raw form, become one of the most popular fruits in America, and how did it fall so deeply out of fashion? Meanwhile, as cranberry sauce was relegated to Thanksgiving, cranberry juice became a popular drink—and mixer. But why is the juice so widely believed to combat urinary-tract infections, and does science support that claim? Join us this episode for all that, plus a tour of the cranberry bog of the future.

When the European colonists arrived in North America, they discovered that Native American tribes enjoyed a tart, bright-red berry growing wild in sandy bogs around New England. In fact, tribes across the continent’s north harvested cranberries and ate them in combination with fats, meats, corn, and other berries, in addition to using them for medicine and dye. But the colonists didn’t copy the local Native tradition of pounding cranberries with meat to create a protein-rich power bar called pemmican, says Robert Cox, the author of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog To Table—in part because the cranberry fit perfectly into their own tradition of cooking tart berries into sauce to accompany meats. Used like this, as a substitute for the British gooseberry or redcurrant, cranberry sauce became so popular that, Cox told Gastropod, “People would joke that if you visited a New England home in the 18th or early 19th century, the tablecloth on the table was held down at each and every corner by big pots of cranberry sauce that were served with anything for breakfast, anything for lunch, anything for dinner.”

Today, however, cranberry sauce has almost entirely disappeared from our culinary vocabulary, aside from Thanksgiving and, in the United Kingdom, Christmas dinner. Instead, most people now consume cranberries in their dried and juiced forms. In part, cranberry juice’s popularity has thrived due to its supposed ability to help either treat a urinary-tract infection (UTI), or prevent future ones from occurring. This belief stretches back to the Native Americans. But while the cranberry is generally thought to be a healthful fruit snack overall, the science on its UTI-fighting powers has been decidedly mixed. Frustrated, Manisha Juthani-Mehta, an associate professor of medicine at Yale University, conducted her own rigorous, standardized, controlled scientific study to determine whether the juice can actually help, and she reveals the results on Gastropod.

As cranberry juice and Craisins have grown in popularity, cranberry growers’ modern bogs have kept pace with the demand; today’s bogs are far more productive than the wild cranberry bogs of the past, as we discovered when we visited A.D. Makepeace, the largest cranberry grower in the world, to check out the future of cranberry growing. New varieties, new harvesting techniques, and new farming technologies mean we’re awash in cranberries, presenting cranberry growers with a new challenge: how to break cranberries out of their monogamous relationship with turkey, and convince us to eat more of this most American berry all year round. Listen in!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod, a podcast cohosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that looks at food through the lens of science and history.