Thanksgiving dinner can be summed up with three words:
- Pumpkin pie
- Cranberry sauce
Well I exaggerate. Nevertheless these are pretty essential to the traditional dinner. When Native Americans and European settlers celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621, fresh cranberries, cooked pumpkin and squash, and wild turkey were on the menu. To the Europeans, cranberries were an unusual local fruit, with a sour/bitter flavor, difficult to eat without sweetener. Despite lack of sweeteners, Native Americans had been using cranberries for a long time, for medicinal purposes, for dyes and to make pemmican, a mash of venison and cranberries. Sort of like a primitive energy bar.
Nutritionally, cranberries are notable for vitamin C. They are high in pectin, a soluble fiber. Recently they’ve been touted for polyphenols, which may have unique antimicrobial activity. Cranberries and cranberry juice are believed to cure or prevent urinary tract infections (UTI), perhaps thanks to those polyphenols. For older women who are more prone to these infections, regular intake of cranberries or cranberry juice might be helpful. So there’s some rationale for thinking of cranberries as medicinal.
Cranberries are harvested from September to mid-November, so fresh cranberries are only available for a short time. In the early 20th century, one enterprising owner of a cranberry bog experimented with ways to preserve the glut of fall-harvested cranberries through the year. He invented canned cranberry jelly, and the rest is Thanksgiving history. It was first sold in 1941 and has been a Thanksgiving staple since.
Americans consume well over 5 million gallons of cranberry jelly each holiday season. One quarter cup portion of jelly has:
- 112 calories
- 22 grams of sugar
- 0.7 mg vitamin C
- 0.7 grams fiber
Much of the fiber is pectin, which helps the cranberries to gel. Each can is the equivalent of 200 cranberries. Polyphenol content (and antimicrobial potential) is unknown, so it’s not clear whether cranberry jelly would help with UTIs.
I prefer to make a fresh cranberry relish with oranges, apples and fresh cranberries. And considerable sugar. You can find the recipe on this blog post from 2 years ago. It’s always a big hit, so I make enough for leftovers. Make it ahead, because the flavor improves if it sits overnight.
For more information about cranberries, check out The Cranberry Institute website. There’s a wealth of information, and the Blog has recipes.
The University of Maine also has lots of information, since cranberries are native to New England.
If you’re concerned about UTIs, one easy way to add cranberry without the added sugar is unsweetened cranberry juice. Ocean Spray, Knudsen and Whole Foods 365 are three choices, and there may be others at your local store. NOTE: this will be a mouth puckering experience. Instead of adding sugar, mix it with a naturally sweet juice like orange, grape, apple or prune.