"You might say these cranberries are the forefathers of those that will come out of the can you may open this Thanksgiving," said a National Park Ranger, pointing to a wild cranberry bog - just a sand dune or two away from the pounding Atlantic where the Mayflower first landed in America.
A small bog like this one at the Cape Cod National Seashore started the whole industry - an industry which has catapulted the last few years into an almost $200 million international business of canned, bottled, and poly-bagged bright red, tart fruit and juice.
The craneberry is no longer just an American delicacy nor just the expected once-a-year guest at Thanksgiving feasts across the nation. This Cape Cod native has become a real international traveler, sold in one form or another in 50 different countries from Japan to Australia to Sweden to Kenya.
The fresh whole berries are even shipped to England and sold in little white cardboard six-ounce containers (like strawberries here) for about the same price we pay for the whole pound of cranberries.
Europeans like the tart sauce year-round with game and other meats and you can find the glass jars of American cranberry sauce in almost any English grocery store. The Belgians and Danes clip cranberry recipes for everything from souffles to entrees.
The Japanese, bombarded by advertising posters in the subways, are buying the juice for about $1.60 a liter, although at first they were skeptical about the bright red color. They didn't believe it was 100 percent natural.
Here at home, too, cranberry drinks (cranberry cocktail, cranapple, crangrape - and even the alcoholic "Boggs," "Firecracker" and "Cape Codder") have become popular, creating a new year-round need for one of North America's few native fruits (some say the blueberry and the Concord grape are the only others).
Some juice sales could be attributed to the "medicinal" reputation of the cranberry. Often "prescribed" for urological ailments as one of the few "acidifying" fluids, the drink is lately being used to treat drug overdoses, and being touted as a natural alternative to present red dyes. (The Wampande Indians here used a cranberry mixture to treat poison-arrow wounds.)
Ocean Spray, the 48-year-old giant cranberry cooperative with 705 members from five states and Canada, controls 86 percent of the country's berry crop from their "new" international headquarters, an old refurbished clam factory within sight of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower II.
"Even though this year's crop is probably going to be the biggest yet, we're going to run out of berries, due to the popularity oftour drink products," an industry spokesman forecast. (Drinks amount to 50 percent of the cooperative's total sales while fresh berries, the one-time big seller, are less than 3 percent.)
But it hasn't always been so rosy a picture for the cranberry, so called by the Pilgrims because its light pink blossom looked like the white cranes that came to eat the berry. Three days before Thanksgiving in 1959, the government announced that a herbicide used on cranberries caused cancer. Although the scare was mostly unfounded (only a tiny portion of the total crop was actually treated) holiday sales took a nose-dive that year and even with a federal subsidy the following season, many third - and fourth-generation cranberry-growing families had to abandon the berry business.
The older, smaller bog operators on the Cape were especially hurt since they were already feeling the extra population pressures of competing with tourists for land.
It wasn't until 200 years later after the Pilgrims landed that Henry Hall Dennis discovered the secret of cultivating cranberries. He observed that those berries sprinkled most with sand from nearby dunes grew the largest and juiciest berries. This discovery gave birth to our modern cranberry business that spread "off-Cape" to Wisconsin (Vying with Massachusetts as No. 1) to the Pacific Northwest and to Canada.
A second cranberry pioneer was Marcus Urann, a Boston lawyer who owned a few bogs. He was distressed when he saw his picked berries rotting from over-supply during the harvest, so in 1912 he "created" Ocean Spray's original product, "homemade" cranberry sauce. He helped stir the very first batch, helped can it, named it, designed the label and then went out and sold it.
Do well still get the "original" recipe when we open a can of cranberry sauce with its modernized label?
"When sugar prices went up, we did try to cut down on the sugar," admits one executive, "but out basic product we make today is not too different from the original."
Since cranberries have their own jelling properties, it is virtually necessary, however, to have these basic proportions - 1/3 fruit, 1/3 sweetener, and 1/3 water.
To prolong the life of fresh berries, a constant temperature of 40 degrees will keep the cranberry up to 60 days, thanks to its tough skin.
But not everyone likes cranberries.
"Personally, I don't like them. We often buy the cans ourselves, it's a lot simpler," signs big "Ike" Syrjala of West Barnstable, a fourth-generation cranberry grower.
"People used to have shares in bogs or own an acre or two, but today, the land is too valuable . . . your next municipal dump was yesterday's bog."
Syrjala, who started picking when he was 9, can remember greasing himself with raw salt pork for protection while weeding the bogs of poison ivy, a natural enemy of the fruit.
"It's hard work, just look at my hands," says the 37-year-old, holding out his rough, aged hands.
"But, I still like it . . . it still can be fun." 10-MINUTE CRANBERRY SAUCE (Makes 4 cups) 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 cup water 1 pound (4 cups) fresh or fresh-frozen cranberries.
Combine sugar and water in saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Bring to boil; add cranberries; cook till skins pop, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Serve sauce warm or chilled.
Variations: Use orange juice instead of water. Stir in grated lemon or orange peel. Stir in chopped nuts, dates or raisins. Season with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg or allspice. Stir in brandy or orange liqueur. CRANBERRY CRUNCH (Makes 9 squares) 1 1/2 sups uncooked rolled oats 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 3/4 cup brown sugar 1/3 cup butter or margarine 1 1/2 cups 10-Minute Cranberry Sauce, cooled 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl mix together oats, flour and brown sugar. Cut in butter until crumbly. Press half of crumb mixture in a greased 8-inch square pan. In a small bowl mix together cranberry sauce and cornstarch; spread onto crumb base. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Bake 45 minutes. Cool, cut into squares. 1 package (3 ounces) raspberry flavoured gelatin 1 1/2 cups boiling water 1 1/2 cups 10-Minute Cranberry Sauce, cooled 2 cups whipped cream
In a bowl, dissolve raspberry gelatin in boiling water, stirring to dissolve throughly. Chill until mixture is thickened. Stir in cranberry sauce.Fold in whipped cream. Spoon into serving dishes, chill.