Why do we eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving?

They might be the most polarizing figure at Thanksgiving.

Some folks might prefer them straight from the can, as a gelatinous cylinder bearing the ridges of the vessel from whence it came. Others might prefer them as a fresh relish or sauce, while others might forego a serving of them altogether.

No matter what form cranberries take, the tart fruit has become a standard part of many Thanksgiving dinners.

The cranberry has become nearly as ubiquitous with the holiday dinner as the avian star of the show. While only playing a supporting role, the fruit side dish has been a part of the cast for centuries, bringing along its ancient history and story of culinary evolution to the table.

Cranberries on a flooded vine.
Cranberries on a flooded vine.

Cranberries are native to North America, particularly in states like Massachusetts.

"For thousands of years, they've been growing here naturally along the dunes and in small wetland areas in the region," said Brian Wick, the executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association in Massachusetts.

According to Wick, cranberry vines are a resilient perennial plant capable of growing for decades and sometimes for over a century.

This resilience and other helpful properties helped make the plant – and its berries – useful to humans for many years.

Cranberries picked in Massachusetts.
Cranberries picked in Massachusetts.

In particular, cranberries were important for the indigenous people, who used them for various purposes, such as medicine and as a dye in their clothing.

Cranberries were also an integral part of life as a food source. For instance, cranberries were mixed with meat and fat as a way to help extend the shelf life of the meat.

The indigenous people then introduced the cranberry to the English pilgrims when they arrived in North America. According to Wick, they helped the pilgrims understand what cranberries were and how to use them.

Cranberries were later featured at a large meal shared between the two groups — a meal that later became known as the first Thanksgiving dinner.

Engraving made in 1847 by C E Wagstaff and J Andrews after Captain Seth Eastman, U.S. Army, of Quaker pilgrims meeting Massasoit, one of the most powerful chiefs in New England.
Engraving made in 1847 by C E Wagstaff and J Andrews of a meeting with Massasoit, one of the most powerful chiefs in New England.

The origin of our modern Thanksgiving holiday is a feast that occurred in 1621 in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, according to Plimoth Patuxet Museums director of special projects Kate LaPrad.

English Governor William Bradford called for this feast to be organized after a successful corn harvest — one that was largely aided by an alliance of peace with Massasoit, the leader of the indigenous Pokanoket Tribe.

The meal they shared is known as the Harvest Feast.

"When we talk about the Harvest Feast, I think it's important to understand that these two groups of people at the time, in the fall of 1621, are very much allies," LaPrad said. "These were two groups of people who, at that moment, were both trying to do what they thought was best for the survival of their people."

John Kemp (R) portrays pilgrim Steven Hopkins meeting with the colonists Wampanoag Indian interpreter Hobbamock, played by Jonathan Perry (C), as another Wampanoag, played by Melanie Roderick (L), looks on at Plimoth Patuxet Museum's recreation of the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
A recreation of a meeting between an English pilgrim and two Wampanoag Indians at Plimoth Patuxet Museums in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

According to LaPrad, the Harvest Feast involved three days of playing games and recreation, along with feasting on a variety of foods that were available in the region in the fall.

Some of the foods they ate included items the colonists brought from England, such as cabbage, carrots and turnips. They also feasted on foods that were native to the region, such as pumpkin, squashes and corn.

Also making an appearance at the dinner: the American cranberry.

Women in Cape Code, Massachusetts picking and sorting cranberries.
Women in Cape Cod, Massachusetts picking and sorting cranberries.

Like many people who have their first taste of cranberries, the English colonists noted the strong flavor of the tiny berries.

"In what I've seen in the writings from the period of the pilgrims and beyond, there is reference to the tartness of the cranberry," Wick said. He noted that the Native people even had a term for the berry that translated to "bitter berry."

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To help offset some tartness in the fruit, both the Native Americans and pilgrims used maple, honey and other natural sweeteners to make the cranberries more palatable.

According to Wick, the tart fruit became popularly used to create cranberry sauce for turkey and other types of meat in the late 17th century. Within a hundred more years, cranberry sauce became a staple dish in the U.S., with its popularity taking off even more throughout the 19th century.

Woman in the 1950s placing start-shaped slices of canned cranberry sauce around a turkey.
Woman in the 1950s placing star-shaped slices of canned cranberry sauce around a turkey.

In the early 20th century, the first cranberries were put into metal cans, Wick said. Developed to help preserve a range of foods, canning was also used to help prolong the shelf life of cranberries and cranberry sauce.

This innovation also helped lead to another culinary development: green bean casseroles. Often made from a can of cream of mushroom soup, the green bean casserole is a relatively modern addition to the Thanksgiving menu.

"It was developed in 1955 by someone in the Campbell's test kitchen," LaPrad said. "It wasn't initially thought of as a celebratory holiday food — it was really thought of as a way to make cooking a little bit easier for housewives."

Cranberry sauce and other Thanksgiving side dishes.
Cranberry sauce and other Thanksgiving side dishes.

Today, the legacy and importance of cranberries have remained strong, especially in Massachusetts, where the first Thanksgiving dinner was hosted 400 years ago.

"It's the number one agricultural crop in the state," Wick said. "It's the state berry. Cranberry is the official Massachusetts state color. Cranberry juice cocktail is the official drink."

The importance of the tart fruit is also evident nationwide by how reliably present it is on dinner tables across the country, particularly during Thanksgiving.

"I think on your Thanksgiving dish, [cranberries] really stand out on their own," Wick said. "For a lot of people, it just resonates as the quintessential American side dish."