So maybe the Pilgrims didn't land on the beaches of Cape May. Nevertheless, New Jersey can claim historic ties to the traditions of Thanksgiving. Unbeknownst to many, the Garden State has the distinction of being the country's third largest producer of cranberries.
Big deal, you say. Well, the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center thinks so. New Jersey's cranberry industry is part of a culture whose food ways and life styles are the subject of a continuing study by the Center.
Deep in the Jersey Pine Barrens, and deep in the file cabinets of the Library of Congress, there is an entire "berry story" that may surprise anyone who thinks the state's economy runs on clam strips, salt water taffy and toxic dumps. After all, New Jersey's cranberry industry, according to the book "History, Culture and Archeology of the Pine Barrens," has been "a source of local pride."
Like their Massachusetts brothers, the local Jersey Indians (the Leni-Lenapes) harvested wild cranberries. In fact, Pakimintzen, the name of a New Jersey chief, means "cranberry eater."
In addition, there are a host of historical "cranberry sites" to visit (such as the Growers Cranberry Building in Pemberton, N.J.). Some of the American Cranberry Exchange classifications for cranberries originated in New Jersey (for instance, the "Princeton," which according to a publication at the Library of Congress, are "larger than average and commanded a premium"). And the harvesting scoops made by 19th-century Ocean County blacksmiths are selling these days as antique magazine racks.
The American Folklife Center's part in New Jersey's cranberry business began in 1978 when Congress' declared the Pine Barrens area as a national reserve. It's "touted as the last wilderness in the Eastern megalopolis," says Mary Hufford of the American Folklife Center.
Part of Congress' mandate, says Hufford, involved "a cultural resource assessment," thus the formation of a Pinelands Commission and an in-depth study of the area's land, resources, history and folkways.
But as Jersey critics like to chide, the state has had its share of tsuris, and in some ways the cranberry industry, it seems, is no different.
As Jersey folklore tells it, according to Hufford, Peg Leg John Webb of Cassville flooded the first bogs in the early 1800s, setting his vines in holes punched with his prosthesis.
The acid soil and water resources of the Pine Barrens' cedar swamps made the area ideal for cranberry cultivation. So as fast as suburban shopping malls crop up nowadays, everybody started building bogs. By 1868, the state was ravaged by "cranberry fever," the Garden State's version of the Gold Rush, only this fortune was in fruit. But by the Panic of 1873, cranberry prices slumped and land values plummented.
Then between 1920 and 1960, "the infestation of the false blossom disease and the cranberry girdler an insect ," compounded with the economic depression of the 1930s, says the New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, decreased Jersey's cranberry acreage from about 13,000 acres to 2,500.
Now the state comprises about 13 percent of the nation's cranberry acreage, with a little over 3,000 acres. After Massachusetts (with 1.5 million barrels produced in 1984) and Wisconsin (with 1.2 million), New Jersey has been holding steady at number three (260,000 barrels in '84) for some years now, according to the USDA.
Most of the Pine Barrens' cranberry growers live on land owned by their families for several generations, although now 33 of the state's approximately 45 growers belong to the dominant force in this country's cranberry industry -- Ocean Spray and its 800-member co-op.
After the fall harvest, Ocean Spray trucks trek down Jersey turnpikes and haul those berries that have been "water harvested" (the bogs are flooded) back to the company's Bordentown plant for processing. The berries that are "dry harvested" via a picker remain in firm condition longer, and are thus left to be sold whole, according to Betsy Carpenter of the Pinelands Commission.
Despite the connection of cranberries with Cape Cod, New Jersey has its own cranberry identity. The Library of Congress has published a small paperback aptly called "Cranberries," which includes colorful photographs of the New Jersey harvest and recipes from the locals.
"Pineys," as the natives are called, not surprisingly eat a lot of cranberries -- and not just around holiday time. Eileen Homiller of Lower Banks, N.J., the daughter of a cranberry grower, had a grandmother who lived until she was 89. And "she ate cranberry sauce at every meal," Homiller says.
According to Helen Zimmer, also a Pine Barren resident, giving cranberry bread as a holiday gift is a hard and fast tradition, as is stringing them around Christmas trees. Zimmer also cans them, freezes them, makes sauce out of them and turns them into molds.
Although she does not live on a bog, Zimmer's life revolves around cranberries. She gathers them wild or gets them locally, has a niece who makes cranberry wine, and regularly attends the area's cranberry festival.