Some things are just hard to stay focused on. Once out of sight they go thoroughly out of mind. “Ah,” you say to yourself coming upon a pair of socks you haven’t worn in months, “How did I completely forget I owned these?”
Cranberries are a bit like this. For many of us they put in a cameo appearance at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table in the form of a piquant relish and then are seen (and thought of) no more. Where do cranberries come from, and what are they up to the rest of the year?
In her new book Susan Playfair profiles the diminutive crimson berry with the tart personality, making the case for its crucial contributions to the diets of both Native Americans and newly arrived English colonists struggling to gain a foothold in that wild, exotic land known as Massachusetts. Hence, America’s “founding fruit.”
The cranberry may be petite, but its biography isn’t, and Playfair has her hands full fitting it all into 14 short chapters. We learn about the very specialized conditions under which cranberry vines can be coaxed into producing fruit and how families who have adapted to the boom/bust cycles that bedevil the industry manage to earn a (mostly marginal) living from their bogs. There’s even a peek inside the publicly traded cranberry cooperative known as Ocean Spray, and some thoughtful ruminations about how climate change may be shifting cultivation of the puckery, pea-size berry far to the north of its home ground. With so much history, science, commerce, and farming to consider it’s no wonder chapters tend to drift a bit from their announced subject matter.
Playfair’s research both in field and in library (the book is impressively footnoted) seems to have been diligent and extensive and as a result the who-knews here are thick underfoot. Who knew, for example, that the swamp-loving berry is one of only three cultivated fruits native to North America (the blueberry and the Concord grape are the others) and so were there to meet European expats like the apple and pear at the dock? It’s wonderful to learn that the indigenous peoples of Eastern Massachusetts prized the wild cranberry not just for its medicinal powers — it was then and still is a sovereign remedy for common urinary tract infections — but for the way its bright color and pert acidity gave a welcome lift to their cuisines. Aboard American whalers a few cranberries a day kept scurvy away. There’s history and science aplenty here.
Cranberries were first successfully cultivated on Cape Cod by retired seamen whose property often included the iron-rich coastal peat swamps that the cranberry thrives in. Playfair claims that by 1945, cranberries were Massachusetts’s chief export crop. Within 50 years “cranberry fever” swelled 25 acres of Cape bogs to nearly 3,200 with about 500 more acres farmed in nearby Plymouth County. Cranberries are so exquisitely fussy about their environment it’s no wonder the places it can be successfully cultivated are rare. Nevertheless, ambitious cranberrypreneurs have established thriving industries in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and even Oregon.
Even the most urbanized of Playfair’s readers will have an idea of how the planting, growing, and harvesting of common cultivated food plants like corn or green beans is undertaken. By comparison cranberry cultivation is from Mars, and it’s a challenge to get a clear picture of how it’s accomplished. Setting out a new bog is complicated and expensive and a successful plantation requires access to enormous amounts of fresh water and systems to quickly flood bogs and then drain them again.
Rather than give us a very straightforward explanation of the whole process somewhere near the beginning and getting it over with, Playfair has chosen rather to spread the information over many chapters, occasionally clarifying some crucial step many pages after first referring to it. Providing much of this information in her you-are-there style interviews and descriptions of work at family farms and in university plant science departments (these are often charming vignettes) makes the technical bits easier to ingest but piecing it all together into a coherent picture is left largely up to the reader.
If to know a cranberry is to love a cranberry, beware. You’re going to know a lot.
Stephen Meuse writes about wine, food, and ideas at tableintime.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.