This is why we've all been eating cranberries on Thanksgiving for hundreds of years

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  • Cranberry sauce is one of the most important components of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.
  • Cranberries are one of the few commercially grown fruits native to the United States.
  • The traditional cranberry sauce, made with sugar, did not become popularized until the 19th century.
  • By the early 20th century, farmers began harvesting cranberries in bogs instead of dry-harvesting, which led to cranberry sauce as a Thanksgiving staple.

 

Individual family traditions and multicultural renditions aside, the classic Thanksgiving table tends to look pretty similar across America: a giant roast turkey surrounded by mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, and, of course, cranberry sauce.

Whether you prefer canned or fresh, Americans have pretty much unanimously decided that we wait until November to nosh on this sweet and tart side dish. But where did the tradition come from?

Cranberries are one of the only Native American fruits

Cranberries — along with concord grapes and blueberries — are widely known as the only commercially grown fruits native to the United States. So if you're going to pick a fruit to represent the American harvest, this is it. 

While we can't know for sure what exactly was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving (despite what your elementary school teacher may have told you), there are records of the Pilgrim governor Willam Bradford sending four men on a "fowling mission," which could have meant hunting for turkey, goose, duck, or swan, according to the History Channel.

Other than that, we can only speculate as to what was on the menu. Native Americans were known to eat cranberries regularly and use them as a natural dye for clothing, so chances are they were found on Thanksgiving Day, 1621. But sweetened cranberry sauce was not an invention until later. 

The original cranberry sauce recipe origins

Even if cranberries were natural found in the Americas, it could not be sweetened. The first Americans brought over sugar cane, but couldn't figure out how to make it grow in the alien soil until nearly 50 years later, according to the History Channel.

Reports of the original Native American cranberry sauce recipes — made simply with sugar and water — date back as far as the mid-to-late 17th century, and by the 18th century, cranberry sauce was a known accompaniment to game meat like turkey.

The first acknowledgment of a cranberry sauce recipe can be found in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, which calls for serving roast turkey with "boiled onions and cranberry-sauce," according to The Washington Post.

cranberry sauce

Ocean Spray reinvents the way cranberries are harvested

By the early 19th century, farmers were dry-harvesting cranberries from vines, which was a difficult and arduous process. It wasn't until Ocean Spray reinvented the cranberry game in the 1930s by introducing the wet harvest — known by the popular image of farmer standing up to his waist in a cranberry-topped bog — that cranberries became more commercially viable.

Instead of having many workers pick the cranberries off vines on dry land, it only takes several people to wait until the cranberries float to the surface of the flooded bog to scoop up the crop.

What about canned cranberries?

Canned cranberry jelly actually came about as a solution to a common problem with the finicky nature of cranberry harvests: the modern method of mechanical harvesting can often damage the delicate, tart berries, leaving them too imperfect to sell.

Ocean Spray's solution (with the help of Marcus L. Urann, who first came up with the idea), was to turn these imperfect-looking berries into a jelly-like consistency and sell them in cans, which they've been doing since 1912.

SEE ALSO: You should start prepping for Thanksgiving now — here's what you should be doing already

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