The Thanksgiving issue: Cranberry sauce

You have, no doubt, come here hoping to learn of some radical old-fashioned method for preparing cranberry sauce, some cabalistic ritual of autumn berrying well known to the ancients but lost to our rational age, the merest taste of which will produce shivers of delight claimed in one long-lost poem (once decoded and translated from the Coptic) to last three full days and create breezes that resonate in the distant tropics. Some search for wisdom, others truth or beauty: you, my friend, seek cranberry sauce.

Well, my friend, you are out of luck. Cranberry sauce is pretty much cranberry sauce. The ancients made it in the same way the Ocean Spray people direct us to today on their plastic bags: stew the berries in water, add sugar, and boil until the mixture jells. Even Eliza Leslie couldn’t think of anything exotic to do with cranberry sauce, and she thought of something exotic to do with practically everything; she only suggested you use brown sugar instead of white, and that may have reflected her disdain for the fruit rather than an interest in flavor. Today’s recipes are actually considerably more inventive; no self-respecting foodie would dare serve cranberry sauce made with plain water when freshly squeezed orange juice or port wine were available, and if we can add fresh ginger or star anise or candied kumquat, we surely do. So cranberry sauce hasn’t changed much, and you’re not going to learn any new tricks from old recipes.

What has perhaps changed is that the cranberry sauce used to be far more commonly eaten. Today we eat cranberry sauce once a year at Thanksgiving, occasionally drink cranberry juice, and possibly eat some cranberry nut bread, but any more creative use is rare. In the nineteenth century cranberry sauce was a standard accompaniment to turkey served any time, but it was common alongside game birds as well. Cranberry sauce could be baked into pies (in which case it might be spiced with a little nutmeg or cinnamon), or frozen like sorbet, or put up in jars and called preserves. The berries could also be mixed with Concord grapes or other sorts of berries and made into conserves, or they could be cooked and strained and spiced with wild fancy, as in Maria Parloa’s recipe for “barberry ketchup,” written in the days when “ketchup” meant any highly seasoned sauce:

Three quarts of barberries, stewed and strained; four quarts of cranberries, one cupful of raisins, a large quince and four small onions, all stewed with a quart of water, and strained. Mix these ingredients with the barberries, and add half a cupful of vinegar, three-fourths of a cupful of salt, two cupfuls of sugar, one dessert-spoonful of ground clove and one of ground allspice, two table-spoonfuls of black pepper, two of celery seed, and one of ground mustard, one teaspoonful of cayenne, one of cinnamon and one of ginger, and a nutmeg. Let the whole boil one minute. If too thick, add vinegar or water. With the quantities given, about three quarts of ketchup can be made. Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook (New York: C.T. Dillingham, 1882 [1880]), p. 346.

People did other sorts of things with cranberries too: recipes for cranberry pudding, for example, were fairly common. These were baked puddings, a quick and versatile dessert if you had an oven. Here’s a simple, everyday one from Lydia Maria Child, c. 1830:

A pint of cranberries stirred into a quart of batter, made like a batter pudding, but very little stiffer, is very nice eaten with sweet sauce. The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830), p. 66.

You know what to do, surely? (If not, try decoding and translating from the Coptic.)

You might suppose that cranberries were primarily a New England treat, but they appear in southern cookbooks as well. In fact the nation’s most prolific lover of cranberries may have been Lettice Bryan, whose massive 1839 The Kentucky Housewife contained more than a dozen recipes for them, all thoughtfully and lavishly seasoned. Here, for comparison and clarity, is her not-at-all frugal recipe for cranberry pudding:

Beat six eggs very light, stir them into a quart of sweet milk, with as much finely grated bread as will make it into good batter. Add four ounces of melted butter, a grated nutmeg a spoonful of mixed mace and cinnamon, and a glass of mixed brandy and wine; then stir in very hard a pound of preserved cranberries, continuing to stir it till well incorporated; after which put it in a buttered dish, lay round it a rim of puff paste, neatly serated [sic] or scalloped, and bake it in an oven with moderate heat. Grate loaf sugar over it when cold. A boiled cranberry pudding may be made as directed for a cherry pudding, and eaten warm with wine sauce. Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife: Containing Nearly Thirteen Hundred Full Receipts, facsimile ed. (Applewood Books, 2001 [1839]), p. 246.

Preserved cranberries were not, as you might think, cranberry preserves or cranberry sauce, but berries individually preserved in cranberry-juice syrup:

To preserve cranberries. Take large ripe cranberries, weigh them, rinse them, and put them in a sieve to drain. Weigh half as many berries in another vessel, break them up, and stew them tender in a small quantity of water; squeeze the jelly through a bag, and return it to the kettle. Weigh some loaf sugar, allowing a pound and a half to each pound of the whole berries; dissolve it in the cranberry juice; add the white of an egg to every five pounds, boil it up, skim it, and put in your whole berries. Boil them slowly till they are about half done; then raise them with a perforated ladle, spread them out on dishes, and set them by till next day. Then boil them in the syrup till they are done, and quite transparent; cool them again, put them up in small jars, and cover them with brandy papers. The Kentucky Housewife, p. 370.

Clearly Lettice Bryan was a woman who loved her cranberries. I don’t have time for this sort of thing, unfortunately. Neither did most Americans in 1839, and it’s possible that I’m exaggerating the extent to which people experimented with cranberries. It’s easy to do that reading old cookbooks: just because somebody published a recipe doesn’t mean anybody else ever cooked it. But Americans certainly ate them more regularly then than now — I suspect, because they were the only sort of fresh fruit available in winter. Practically all fruit was eaten fresh, unless like apples it could be dried. Cranberries ripen in fall, after other sorts of berries are past, and two hundred years ago in New England they were left on the bushes to be harvested throughout the winter, even after the ice melted in spring.

Stewing the cranberries with enough sugar to make them palatable was the simplest way of preparing them, and as a result, cranberry sauce was so commonly eaten in Boston two centuries ago as to be a cliché. In 1808 a semi-professional wag named William Tudor wrote a fictional “Memoir on Cranberry Sauce” supposed to have been authored by a visiting Frenchman as a report to his government. If, he wrote, “the progress of a nation in civilization and refinement may be ascertained by the degree of skill they have attained in cooking, this infant nation are still in the most barbarous situation,” and cranberry sauce was Exhibit A. “From its universal use,” he lamented, “possessing a mixture of sweetness and acidity, it stimulates their appetite, and prevents them from perceiving the insipidity and staleness of their dishes.” Yet it was consumed with every sort of meat, even lobster, on even the fanciest of tables. It was even supposed to have health benefits, which the rational Frenchman labored to dispel:

One individual informed me, that the rosy complexion of their women had been attributed to their consumption of [cranberry sauce]. Though this opinion seemed extravagant, I resolved to try the truth of it, because every argument in its favour should be destroyed if possible. I therefore prevailed upon a servant girl, about fourteen years of age, to eat nothing else; partly coaxing and partly by menaces, I confined her to this food for a week; at the end of which she grew pale and exhibited feverish symptoms, which is sufficient to prove the absurdity of the supposition. I could pursue the experiment no further, as she threatened to run away, and the most senseless clamour would have ensued, if any ill consequences should have happened to her. For so cold and backward are this people, that they would not sacrifice the life of one individual, to ascertain the most brilliant philosophical truth… [William Tudor], “A Memoir on Cranberry Sauce,” in Miscellanies (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1821), pp. 19-25.

All right, well, enough of that. If you know how commonly eaten cranberry sauce was in 1808, if you recognize the dual satire of both New Englanders’ appetites and the dangerously excessive rationality of revolutionary France, and if you can get past the bit about threatening servant girls, this is hilarious, but he who laughs last doesn’t always laugh best after two hundred years.

Cranberry sauce was, in any event, terribly common and identifiably American, which is why it had to be yoked to Thanksgiving, which was reinvented in the mid-nineteenth century as a celebration of all things American. And so, if for no other reason, we don’t eat it any longer. There is no surer way to kill the everyday enjoyment of a food than to assign it to a holiday. We can get frozen blueberries in November, now, too, and we we’ve fallen out of the habit of serving massive roasted meats with sweetened fruit, but cranberry sauce isn’t bad stuff, you know. You could eat it any time you wanted. It won’t give you a rosy complexion or shivers of delight, but it tastes pretty good. And that’s all the ancient wisdom you’re going to get.