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Ideas

Cranberry sauce, un-canned

That red, jellied mold is a symbol of the American experience — but not in the way you might think

By Glenn McDonald

Turkey. Pumpkin pie. Those pilgrim hats with the buckle. Ironically, most of the traditions and iconography we associate with our biggest culinary holiday weren’t at the first Thanksgiving feast at all. But one food item was there from the beginning: the cranberry.

And the story of how a bitter fruit became one of the most controversial items on the Thanksgiving table — something people either adore or think of as red mucus in the shape of a can — might be the most quintessentially American thing about the holiday.

At the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, cranberries were a staple food for Native Americans. The Algonquin, Chippewa, and Cree harvested wild cranberries in what is now New England. The Algonquin called them “sassamenesh” and used them for food, dye, and even as certain medicines — including laxatives.

But cranberry sauce is a decidedly modern phenomenon, first sold as a consumer product in 1912. And canned cranberry jelly was the financially-driven invention of a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur named Marcus Urann, a Maine native who switched careers to buy a Massachusetts cranberry bog.

Fresh cranberries can only be harvested and sold for about two months out of the year. Urann discovered that, by way of industrial cooking and canning, he could extend that short selling season. 

The idea was a good one. Urann made crazy money, and a change in the way cranberries were harvested helped him along: In the 1930s, farmers began flooding cranberry bogs, making the berries easier to pick more quickly.

But Urann soon sensed competitors sneaking up from behind. So in an effort to corner the market, he convinced his competitors to form an agricultural cooperative. By way of arcane legal maneuvering, the co-op model protected Urann and his new business partners from anti-trust laws that would have otherwise scuttled the plan.

The canned cranberry log, as we know it today, achieved nationwide distribution in 1941. Savvy marketing convinced the American people that jellied cranberry — love it or hate it — was an essential part of our treasured annual holiday.

The rest is history. Urann’s cranberry cooperative changed its name to Ocean Spray in 1957. Now, Americans consume more than five million gallons of canned cranberry jelly every holiday season.

And Urann’s innovation fundamentally changed the economics of cranberries: just five percent of the U.S. cranberry crop is sold as fresh fruit, with the rest going into sauces, juice, and yes, that shape-holding canned jelly mold.

So next time you spoon a chunk of jellied cranberry on your Thanksgiving plate, give a moment of thanks to the estimable Mr. Urann: for his dubious addition to the national palette, his victories for the cranberry economy, and his defeat of antitrust consumer protections. America!

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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