Strange Americana: Why Is Canned Cranberry Sauce Such a Holiday Staple?

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Much like eggnog or gingerbread cookies, canned cranberry sauce seems to be one of those foods that magically appears on store shelves during the holidays. Sure, you could purchase it in July, but something about Thanksgiving and canned cranberry sauce just works. And if your Christmas staple is turkey, or if another type of holiday gathering calls for such a meal, cranberry sauce is a must.

What you might not realize is that only 5% of the total crop of cranberries is sold in fresh fruit form. So, how does the cranberry industry stay afloat? Well, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) Americans consume a staggering 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce every holiday season. Canned cranberry sauce is not just a staple, but a tradition. In this installment of Strange Americana, we’re taking a look at the history of this strange, yet delectable, gelatinous, can-shaped substance. Any way you slice it, it’s sure to be fascinating.

Americans Have Long Been Crazy for Cranberries

Americans may not think of eating cranberries year-round, but, when we do peel open a can of cran, we don’t play. According to Ocean Spray, Americans consume roughly 400 million pounds of cranberries each year — and 80 million pounds during the week of Thanksgiving alone. Even though fresh cranberries don’t appear on too many shopping lists these days, comparatively speaking, Americans have actually enjoyed cooking up cranberries for quite some time.

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Cranberries are among the few fruits native to North America, making them a staple among some groups of Indigenous people. Well before it was a cylinder of cranberry that holds its shape a little too well, cranberries were boiled with fresh sugar and used as a sauce for meat-centric meals, The Washington Post reports. So, how did it become the popular turkey accompaniment we know and love today? Let’s just say, it was a real process.

Cranberry Sauce Throughout the Centuries

Though it’s unknown exactly when cranberry sauce and turkey became the peanut butter and jelly of Thanksgiving, so to speak, the duo does appear in both a recipe collection dating back to the 1600s and in America’s first-known published cookbook. In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery; one of Simmons’ recipes calls for serving up a roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry-sauce” — so it’s clearly been a staple for quite some time.

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A few decades later, in 1816, Henry Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran, planted the first commercial cranberry bed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. While the bed is still in operation today, the cranberry industry didn’t take off right away. So, how did it finally become a Thanksgiving must-have? During the American Civil War, Union General Ulysses S. Grant served cranberry sauce to his troops as a Thanksgiving treat during the Siege of Petersburg. As you may have guessed, however, the cranberry sauce consumed by Grant’s troops wasn’t the jiggly, alarmingly can-shaped variety we enjoy today. In fact, that innovation wouldn’t come to be for another century or so.

The Problem with Cranberries

While cranberries are relatively easy to grow under the right conditions, they tend to be incredibly picky when it comes to those just-right conditions. Since cranberries thrive in natural wetlands, they need a great deal of water. Not to mention, the climate needs to be just so. Needless to say, very few states produce the fruit; in the United States, the majority of cranberries are grown in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.

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To make matters more complicated, cranberries have an incredibly specific harvesting period, too. Up until a little over a century ago, people only had from about mid-September to mid-November to get their hands on fresh cranberries before the harvesting season ended. And, without a great way to preserve them, cranberries had a pretty short shelf life, which meant saving some to enjoy during the spring or summer wasn’t really an option.

The Man Who Put Cranberries in a Can

Marcus Urann, who began to question the limited two-month market for cranberries each year, ended up revolutionizing the industry. Urann left his legal career behind, but brought his business know-how to his new ambition; in 1912, he began playing around with the idea of canning and juicing cranberries. Not to mention, he helped develop harvesting techniques that would really change the game.

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By the 1930s, Urann had developed several new products: cranberry juice-based cocktails became increasingly popular as did the mixed drink add-in, cranberry syrup. To help curtail the cranberry market’s notorious price swings, he joined forces with his competitors, forming a cooperative initially known as Cranberry Canners, Inc. with the AD Makepeace Company and the Cranberry Products Company.

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“From the beginning, the relationship between the three was fraught with mistrust,” author Robert Cox explained to Smithsonian Magazine. “But on the principle that one should keep one’s enemies closer than one’s friends, the cooperative pursued a canned version of the ACE’s fresh strategy, rationalizing production, distribution, quality control, marketing, and pricing.” Despite this tense relationship, the joint venture proved to be successful.

In 1941, the cooperative introduced Americans to the cranberry sauce “log” — yes, the can-shaped condiment we all know and love. And the rest, as they say, is history. A few years later, in 1946, the incredibly prosperous cooperative changed its name to the National Cranberry Association. A little over a decade later, it became Ocean Spray.

Today, Ocean Spray, a cooperative composed of over 700 member growers, is still the largest producer of canned cranberry sauce in America. And the venture shows no signs of slowing down. A whopping 76% of Americans serve store-bought cranberry sauce with their Thanksgiving meals and, according to Ocean Spray, 73% of Americans actually prefer their cranberry sauce jellied and can-shaped. So, while canned cranberry sauce remains an interesting slice of Americana, it may not be so strange after all! 

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