What’s Thanksgiving without cranberries? Whether you whip up a batch of homemade chutney (see below) or open a can of jellied sauce, there’s a good chance that the famous red berry will make an appearance in some way, shape or form with your feast. Ocean Spray reports that six in 10 Americans say cranberry sauce has and always will be on their Thanksgiving table every year.

What exactly is the tie between cranberries and Thanksgiving? It goes beyond the bright red color that makes it so festive; they have become essential to our country’s holiday history.

“Thanksgiving with cranberry sauce, breads and pies are just a part of our American tradition,” says Stephen V. Lee III, great-great grandson of the founder of his family’s cranberry farm in Chatsworth NJ, Lee Brothers Inc.

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The Rich History of a Tart Fruit

The Lee Brothers’ empire was dream turned into reality when Stephen Lee senior immigrated to New Jersey from Ireland in 1868.

He learned how to build small dams across the natural steams so that the native cranberry plants could be flooded during the winter months — thereby protecting them from the cold weather and ensuring that they would more likely produce fruit each year.

During the late 1800s, several families were developing ways to grow cranberries commercially, as they are one of three fruits native to North America — the others being the blueberries and Concord grapes. Cranberries require acidic, well-drained sandy soils which are naturally found in New Jersey, as well as in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington.

Pine Barrens Native Fruits, a fruit wholesaler in Burlington County that specializes in cranberries, benefits greatly from its location and climate for this very reason. Tom Shuff of PBNF says that “the local Lenni-Lenape called cranberries pakim [pronounced pa-kee’m], meaning ‘noisy fruit’ because when they are over-ripe they sound like popcorn when you walk on them.”

Land-Dwellers or Water-Borne?

When people think of cranberries, images of buoyant red berries in a large body of water often come to mind. But contrary to what many believe, cranberries do not grow in water.

Shuff explained that cranberries actually grow on a low-lying vine that, from a distance, looks like a lush lawn. Their hollow chamber in the center of the fruit allows them to float.

“One picking method involves flooding the bog and running a bar along the ground, which knocks the cranberries loose from the vine,” he said. “Then it is only a matter of gathering them from the surface of the water and trucking them to the cleaning equipment.”

Cranberries become ripe near the end of August, but at that time they can still be white. It takes exposure to cold nighttime temperatures for them to turn red, which means that the typical harvest happens in October and early November.

Tart to Taste

“Cranberries have a naturally fresh, crisp and tart flavor when you bite into them,” said Shuff. Lee agreed, adding that the tartness is an indication of its health-enhancing properties.

When Stephen Lee picks a berry to eat fresh, he looks for ones with the deepest red color possible, but he noted that even white cranberries have all of the same benefits.

Research about consuming antioxidant-rich cranberries have been linked to lowering risk of urinary tract infections, improved immune function and decreased blood pressure, according to Medical News Today.

From Bog to Table

Like many cranberry farms, Lee Brothers Inc. works in partnership with Ocean Spray, a top producer in ready-to-drink cranberry beverages. “We deliver cranberries to the cooperative in the fall, then trust that they will be able to distribute earnings from the sale of cranberry products over the next 20 months or so,” he said.

Pine Barrens Native Fruits shares some of their cranberry harvest with Ocean Spray, but most of its berries are sold in high-end grocery stores and farmers markets throughout New Jersey and along the mid-Atlantic coast.

While cranberries are certainly a seasonal staple, relationships with companies like Ocean Spray and the ease with which cranberries can be preserved, packaged and turned into other processed products, ensures year-round longevity for the mighty cranberry.

Cranberry, Ginger and Lemon Chutney

Recipe provided by Rick Rodgers

Makes about 3 cups, 12 servings

Make-Ahead: The chutney can be prepared up to 3 weeks ahead, cooled, covered and refrigerated.

Ingredients:

1 medium lemon     

One 12-oz. bag fresh or frozen cranberries  

2 cups sugar

½ cup (¼-inch dice) crystallized ginger (about 2½ oz.)

⅓ cup finely chopped yellow onion

1 garlic clove, minced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1 cinnamon stick

½ tsp. dry mustard

½ tsp. salt

Directions:

1. Using a micrograter or the small holes on a box grater, remove the yellow zest from the lemon. Using a small, sharp paring knife, cut away and discard the thick white pith. Cut the lemon in half horizontally and pick out the seeds with the tip of the knife. Dice the lemon into ¼-inch pieces.

2. In a medium, nonreactive saucepan, combine the cranberries, diced lemon and zest, sugar, ginger, onion, garlic, jalapeño, cinnamon stick, mustard and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often to help dissolve the sugar.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the sauce is thick and the cranberries have burst, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool completely. (The chutney can be prepared up to three weeks ahead, covered tightly and refrigerated.) Remove the cinnamon stick just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

More on NJ Flavor:

NJ Restaurants Look to ‘Bubbles’ to Stay Afloat This Winter

How to Make the Most of Your Downsized Thanksgiving Dinner (Recipe Included)

NJ Chef Never Goes a Thanksgiving Dinner Without This Salad Recipe

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Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at jlieberman@tapinto.net.