Thanksgiving: A Celebration Of Cranberries

— by Ronit Treatman

“How do you say cranberry in Hebrew?” my children asked me.  I was stumped.  I had never heard of cranberries before I moved to the United States.  “Maybe “cranberry” with a Hebrew accent?” I suggested.  I looked it up to be certain.  Modern Israeli Hebrew is a revived language, in which new names are constantly being adopted for things that did not exist in Ancient Israel.  The Hebrew name selected for “cranberry” by the Academy of the Hebrew Language is “chamtzitz.”  To me, “chamtzitz” refers to any sour wild plant.  In order to learn more about this Native American fruit, we decided to experience the cranberry harvest in New Jersey.

More after the jump.
Our Thanksgiving celebration began in mid-October with a visit to Double Trouble State Park‘s cranberry harvest.  This beautiful park is located in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.  Oxycoccus macrocarpus is one of three fruits native to North America.  The other two are blueberries and Concord grapes.  The Leni Lenape called this berry “ibimi” or “bitter berry.”  For them, the cranberry was a symbol of peace.  The Pilgrims named it “crane berry” because they thought that the cranberry blossoms looked like cranes.  With time, this name was shortened to “cranberry.”  After the American Revolutionary War, cranberries began to be cultivated.  They were exported to Northern Europe, where they became very popular.   These evergreen vines are planted in peat bogs.  Historically, cranberries were picked by hand.  The most cost-efficient way to harvest them is by flooding the bog.  The ripe berries float to the surface.  At the Double Trouble State Park, we saw farmers dressed in waterproof rubber clothes vacuuming the ripe cranberries from the surface of the bog.  It was a wonderful visit, and the whole place looked like a beautiful impressionist painting with shades of green, red, and gold.

We came home with several pounds of fresh cranberries.  I decided to investigate how the Native Americans prepared them.  I was surprised to discover that it is possible to eat cranberries raw.  They were too tart for my taste in this manner.  One of the most famous ways in which the Native Americans used cranberries was in the preparation of pemmican.  Pemmican is a type of jerky made with deer (or any other game) and cranberries.  I discovered a recipe for the first cranberry sauce, which the Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims.  It is a true Native American dish composed of the New World flavors of cranberries and maple sugar.  

Pilgrim Cranberry Sauce
Adapted from Eliza Leslie’s Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery.

  • 1 pound fresh cranberries
  • 2-3 cups maple sugar
  1. Place the cranberries in a pot. Cover with water.  
  2. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, until soft.  
  3. Stir in the maple sugar to taste.  
  4. When the sugar is completely absorbed into the sauce, remove from the fire.

Serve hot or cold.

What did we make with the rest of the cranberries?  Another Native American specialty: dried cranberries.  

Dried Cranberries

  1. Wash the cranberries.
  2. Preheated the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  3. Place the berries on a cookie sheet lined with 3 layers of paper towels.  
  4. Put the cranberries in the oven.
  5. Turn the heat down to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. Leave the cranberries in the oven for 8 hours or longer as needed.

As I celebrate my adopted holiday of Thanksgiving, I will honor the Native Americans and Pilgrims by preparing the cranberry sauce that they savored together in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation.  I like to say a blessing from my tradition to express my gratitude on this day:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiyimanu v’higi’anu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are you, L-rd, our G-d, sovereign (or king) of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.