We have done wrong by cranberries.
North America has few enough true native fruits; the Great Lakes north country even fewer.
Yet here we have not just a native fruit, but one of the original native fruits. The fruit that fueled and healed Native Americans for centuries. The fruit that was served at the first Thanksgiving. The fruit that Thomas Jefferson requested of James Madison, as one of three items from home he especially missed while in France: apples, pecans and cranberries. The fruit that effectively made the fur trade possible, because its acidity, when pounded into venison pemmican, prevented spoilage and made for one of the first transportable meals on the continent.
This fruit grows wild in our great north — exclusively so — in sandy bogs and wetlands, places of primordial quiet. The kinds of places where you might see a moose or a pine marten or a gray jay, but might not see another human for months. The kinds of places we dream of escaping to in canoes. The kinds of places our most eloquent voices — Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, Jim Harrison — have sung about.
It is a fruit so sure of its place in the world that it never bothered, evolutionarily, to develop sugars (like such relative flirts as blueberries and raspberries) that would attract animals and birds to eat it, and thereby spread its seeds. It stayed sour and astringent, and simply let its berries float to wherever else they cared to settle, colonizing itself in this way, regally, never owing anyone anything.
And where it’s not growing wild, it is an intensely seasonal crop grown along a narrow band just north and south of the Canadian border, then harvested in flooded manmade bogs where crimson, pink and ivory marbles float in surreal aquatic carpets below blue October skies, against the russets, oranges and yellows of autumn hardwoods. It is maybe the single most picturesque harvest technique in the region, if not the country.
We northerners have this to ourselves, like ruffed grouse, and red pines, and wild blueberries, and Lake Superior, and other expressions of place that don’t particularly care to consider life below the 45th parallel.
And what can we say we’ve done with this patrimony?
Have we celebrated its seasonality, creating restaurant menus and revered home preparations around its annual appearance, as we do with ramps, or morels, or blueberries, or venison?
Have we turned its gorgeous harvest season into driving-tour, bed-and-breakfast travel destinations, like North Shore fall color?
Have we mastered it as an ingredient — a tart but essential part of our cuisine — in the way that Scandinavians own lingonberries, Brits embrace gooseberries and the French make celestial liqueurs and cordials from their sloe berries and black currants?
No, we have not. And what have we done instead?
Readers, I give you Craisins, Cranapple and the 14-ounce Thanksgiving can of “sauce,” containing — I’m holding one right here — cranberries, high-fructose corn syrup, water and, for good measure, more corn syrup — formed into a slippery cylinder of blood-red, pectin-hardened aspic.
It’s as if, faced with the solemnity of a moose standing knee-deep in a remote tamarack swamp, we felt the urge to dress it in a Santa costume and hang twinkle lights from its antlers.
We have done wrong by cranberries. And we can do better.
We can, for a start, try simply tasting a raw cranberry. All by itself. No sugar, no honey, no syrup, no can. It’s what the harvest crews wading the bogs do all day long. Just a quick, apple-ish snap between your front teeth, and what happens?
Well, you’ll notice that you don’t actually want to spit it out. It really just tastes like a mild crabapple, with a very pleasant and delicate crunch — sour, yes, but with a pomegranate fruitiness and, if you pay close attention, a little whisper of warming spice, maybe cardamom, maybe coriander. Certainly, it deserves almost none of its reputation as something indigestibly bitter and acidic.
In fact the word bitter is part of the problem. We in the Western world have tipped the scales of what we will eat so heavily on the side of salty and sweet that we now struggle to differentiate between sour and bitter. There is actually a scientific phenomenon, linked primarily to English-speaking countries, called Sour-Bitter Confusion. I wish I were kidding.
So to clarify — what you are mostly tasting is sourness, not bitterness. Think of a lemon or a green apple. It’s an acidic sensation that wrings your salivary glands, not the acrid bite of French roast or Campari.
There is also astringency — that powdery, drying feeling on your gums and tongue, which comes from tannin.
And beneath both of those, there might be a tiny bit of bitterness — but very little. It’s just that we have come to think of almost anything that isn’t salty or sweet as “unpleasant,” and therefore “bitter,” a word we use loosely, to which cranberries’ reputation has fallen victim.
On the other hand, here we have three of the world’s great flavor elements — fruit, acid and tannin — united in one, local, seasonal fruit. Does it not seem, at the very least, like a failure of imagination to turn them into something you can sprinkle on your granola, or something you take, like medicine, to prevent UTIs?
We don’t harvest chile peppers and think, well, they’re pretty spicy, we’d better add corn syrup. We work with the extremity of their flavor, and use it to enhance other food, and along the way, we’ve come to base several classic world cuisines on their intense and varied heat.
I am here to ask on behalf of cranberries that we end their long, humiliating dumbing down. That we embrace their sourness, their tannin, their boreal acid bite. Let’s pickle them. Let’s ferment them. Let’s smoke them. Let’s make them our lemons and limes and grapefruits. Let’s pair them with fat and salt like red wine. Let’s make cranberry reduction sauces with port and dark stock. Let’s make more than cosmopolitans out of their cocktail potential. Let’s have cranberry cordials aging in our basements. Let’s recognize the taste of cranberry in other things, the way the French find cassis. Let’s slice them raw and sprinkle them on anything that needs a little slap in the face.
Let’s say, yeah, this is how we roll. We’re northerners. We have a four-month growing season. Our sun doesn’t make much sugar, but it does make acid, and we know what to do with it. Try our chokecherries. Try our thimbleberries. Try our cranberries. See if you can take it.
It’s time to give cranberries their dignity back.