A berry Christmas to all this year

by David McGee

Cranberries are being touted as the newest superfruit and for good reason. The berry’s popularity has been growing quickly because of the high nutrition value, beneficial antioxidant properties and ability to be used in diverse preparations. Typically touted as a holiday staple, cranberries have been an important addition to our diets for centuries and are finally getting the credit they deserve for making our meals so much sweeter while giving a tart bite that can wake up the dullest of dishes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back in time.

The cranberry to Americans, mossberry to northeastern Canadians, fenberry to the English or sassamanash to Cree Native Americans, has been wild-harvested and eaten on the go for as long as humans have gotten hungry, but they stepped into the spotlight when the settling English were starving in Massachusetts and Indians pointed out these delectable epigynous berries that they knew to be good for food, fabric dye and as a medicinal agent. This small indigenous fruit kept Native Americans and European counterparts alive for hundreds of years and their interest was enough to impress the pilgrims so much so they were incorporated into Thanksgiving and other holiday feasts from then on.

Once they were recognized as a viable crop, they stepped onto the agriculture scene and were first grown by Henry Hall, an American Revolutionary War veteran, in Dennis, Mass. around 1816. Since then they have become a major commercial crop with the majority of the fruit — 95 percent — being processed into juices, sauces and jellies or sweetened and dried, with the other 5 percent sold fresh, just waiting for you to become creative and delight your family with homemade goodness.

In Hall’s day, mossberry beds were built in wetlands where the necessary combination of acidic peat soil, abundant fresh water, sand and a growing season that includes a dormancy period, typically April to November, were available. Today they are grown in beds comprised of layers of sand, peat and gravel known as bogs. Also since Hall’s pioneering, there have been some steps taken to increase yields and make harvesting easier but for the most part cranberries continue to be grown much the way as they’ve always been. And that’s a good thing since healthy cranberry vines can survive indefinitely, with some vines in Massachusetts more than 150 years old.

Now that the humble cranberry has become a common feature on our table it’s a good idea to understand some of its benefits and why it has become so darn popular. One of the first and most noticed advantages of including this tart fruit is its ability to prevent disorders like urinary tract infections. The Indians were the first to pick up on it but studies have shown that cranberry products help prevent urinary tract infections by preventing bacteria from clinging to cell walls in the urinary tract. It’s not totally understood how yet, but there’s scientists working on it.

Vaccinium macrocarpon is garnering a closer look for its health benefits because scientific studies in their preliminary stages are showing cranberry products offer great promise for their ability to prevent and reduce the effects of cancer, ulcers, atherosclerosis and dental plaque. So even though the official decision on the health benefits may still be out, it’s a safe bet that drinking a tall glass of cranberry juice in the morning or having a second helping of cranberry sauce on Christmas is going to do you a lot more good than going with the eggnog and cake. So consider the cranberry our new “apple-a-day” fixture, throw a bag of fenberries in the freezer (don’t rinse!) and they’ll be waiting on you fresh as today in six months.