Cranberries are part of many Thanksgiving celebrations. This year, just like last year, Alinea is making a cranberry side for their Thanksgiving-to-Go dinner, and so is Proxi with their Thanksgiving-at-Home and Il Porcellino with Thanksgiving-Dinner-for-Two. If it’s Thanksgiving, there will be cranberries.
It’s likely that many of the cranberries on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables are coming from Wisconsin. Wisconsin produces more than sixty percent of the cranberries harvested in the United States—and cranberries were a big favorite among those who lived here before there even was a Thanksgiving. Cranberries are indigenous to North America, and indigenous people have been eating them for millennia.
Driving through the heavily wooded countryside of Powers Bluff, Wisconsin, Bill Quackenbush, Ho-Chunk Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, looks around at woods, many bare of leaves at this time of year, and says, “Everything in nature is medicinal; all plants are medicine, including cranberries.”
The first Thanksgiving feast took place in Plymouth Colony in 1621, and if there’s any food that’s as essential to Thanksgiving dinner as turkey, that food must be the cranberry. Potatoes, green beans, and other Thanksgiving regulars, well, we have those throughout the year. But turkey and cranberries are so closely linked to the holiday that it’s almost unthinkable to have a thanksgiving dinner without them both.
The medicinal benefits of cranberries are well-established, and cranberries have long been used to treat urinary tract infections, inflammation and other maladies. Many of these treatments were well-known to indigenous people prior to the European invasion.
Early explorers in the area called the fruit “crane berries,” because their flower looked a little like the head of a sandhill crane.
You might have seen photos of cranberries floating in water and then concluded that they grow in water, which is not accurate: cranberries grow in marshes, and these marshes are flooded during harvest season to make the berries easier to gather. It was not always so. In a 1934 article in The Chicago Tribune, a reporter on the scene observed that “when a field was ready to be picked, the farmer notified nearby townspeople. As many people as possible arrived and crawled on their hands and knees along the vines to pick the ripe fruit.” This laborious, uncomfortable task became simpler by flooding the marsh, corralling the floating berries and collecting them with automated equipment. Indigenous people continued to work the cranberry marshes at places such as Wisconsin’s Glacial Lake Cranberries, where they were employed to harvest the cranberries.
Quackenbush tells us that the Ho-Chunk used to prepare cranberries in foods that sound similar to the breakfast I had this morning. “We used to mix dried cranberries with blueberries, wild rice, maple syrup and crushed walnuts,” remembers Quackenbush, “and that was a delicacy that we’d serve to groups.”
We ask Quackenbush what the name of this dish was, and he says, “We just called it ‘wild rice.’ We knew what it was, and my mouth is getting a little wet just thinking about it. Our native foods were always a combination of ingredients, and that diversity in our diets helped us be more robust. We’re no different today than we were a thousand years ago, when people took pride in being a little thick around the waist. It showed you weren’t starving.”
Dried cranberries, like the venison that was dried on wooden racks, also helped indigenous people make it through the winters. Deer roam the forests in Wisconsin Rapids, and they were hunted by the Ho-Chunk and others. But, as Quackenbush points out, “You can only eat venison for so long, so you have to doctor it up,” and that “doctoring” included adding cranberries to the mix.
Native Americans used cranberries in pemmican, a mix of pounded cranberries with dried deer meat and fat, rendering the pemmican shelf-stable, an important consideration pre-refrigeration. “We used to use a lot of lard,” recalls Quackenbush, “and I think people have lost the use of lard. I remember making everything out of lard. We even used to make lard sandwiches.”
In the old days, when people sought out more calories, pemmican was a reliable source of nutrients. In addition, “the fat preserves [the pemmican], as does the acidity in the fruit, which lowers the pH and helps resist bacteria,” says University of the Pacific food historian Ken Albala, who we interviewed earlier this year about his upcoming book about Jello, another, more recent, Thanksgiving food in some households.
It was an honor to interview Quackenbush as well as Native American artist Karen Ann Hoffman, who we meet up with at the Cultural Commons in Stevens Point where there’s a sculpture of a traditional ricing canoe raised in honor of Hoffman’s husband, a Menominee and Ottawa descendent. A member of the Oneida, Hoffman was named the 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow for her talents as a Haudenosaunee bead worker.
When I mention Thanksgiving to Quackenbush and Hoffman, I detected a slight sigh, though both are far too well-mannered to say anything negative about this all-American holiday. Our national mythology represents the Thanksgiving gathering as a place where the newly arrived Europeans set the table with indigenous foods like cranberries and graciously invited the native neighbors to join in. The traditional picture of black-hatted settlers and buckskin-wearing natives—Pilgrims and Wampanoag— sitting peaceably together to enjoy a good meal has been burned into our consciousness through generations of school plays and holiday specials. The perspectives of indigenous peoples on this dinner scene are likely quite different, though around this time of year, many of us eat our share of cranberries.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org