That is the Question.

This Thanksgiving, tables around the country will be set with similar feasts of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  Side dishes may include corn or green bean casserole, candies yams or sweet potatoes, but there always seems to be cranberry sauce somewhere in the mix.  Some families prefer a homemade concoction, passed down through generations, while others prefer the gelatinous canned variety.

Cranberry sauce on turkey is something I just can’t get behind, but, then again, I don’t do fruit with meat, period.  With a little informal survey of friends, family, and co-workers, I’ve found there’s not a lot of middle ground when it comes to cranberry sauce.  It’s a definitive yes or no answer.

So, why the cranberry?  How did this tart little fruit become a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition for nearly 400 years?  For those answers, we must travel way back in time to that first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.  It was President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, finally designated the fourth Thursday in November the Thanksgiving National Holiday.

At that very first feast, when the English settlers and the Wampanoag Indians gathered to celebrate, no one saved the menu for their scrapbook or took a selfie to memorialize the event.  Therefore, we rely on oral history and a few pilgrims’ journals to document the festivities.

Keep in mind, little of what we see on the table these days was available to early settlers.  According to historians, those early Americans most likely dined on wild turkey and other fowl, common in the day.  Rather than a bread-based stuffing, the birds were seasoned with fresh herbs, onions, and nuts.

It’s said the Wampanoag also contributed deer that was roasted on a spit.  Situated on the coast, the first Thanksgiving also would have surely featured fish and shellfish from the ocean.  Perhaps that’s how the tradition of oysters in stuffing evolved.

Potatoes were also a no show at the inaugural event.  But, the pilgrims and Native Americans had access to other root vegetables such as Indian turnips, or bog onions, and groundnuts, which are seeds that ripen underground, like peanuts.

Without the convenience of nationwide shipping and a grocery store on every corner, the pilgrims were resigned to the fruits and vegetables that were in season in the fall.  For veggies they most likely had onions, beans, cabbage, and carrots.  Fruits included blueberries, gooseberries, plums, and of course, cranberries.

Cranberries are usually harvested between September and November, making them perfect for the fall harvest festival.  However, the sweet and tangy cranberry sauce we know today would have been impossible since sugar would have been scarce after the Mayflower’s two month trip across the Atlantic.

Although it’s unclear just how cranberries were served in 1621, some historical reports note that cups of cranberries in bark cups were offered to the settlers at their first meetings with the Native Americans.  The small, tart fruit had many purposes in traditional culture including as a dye and also for medicinal purposes.

Cranberries are also one of the main ingredient in pemmican, a high-protein, high-energy food source that was a staple in the lives of Native Americans.  Sometimes called the original energy bar, pemmican consists of dried meat, of any variety, pounded into a coarse powder, then mixed with equal parts of melted fat and cranberries.  The mixture was then cooled and sewn into hide bags.  Pemmican also became popular with fur trade on the prairies of the west because it was easily stored and transported.

Could it be that the cranberries at that first fall feast was actually pemmican?  If so, be thankful for the evolution to cranberry sauce.

The tradition of tart fruit sauces with wild game began in New England and quickly spread throughout the rest of the young country.  The cranberry, being one of the only fruits native to the United States, is a clear choice to complement our traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

By: Charity D. Stewart for 82717

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About The Author

Charity grew up in Moorcroft and has lived in Gillette since 2001. She loves black dogs and staying involved in our community. If you have a tip or story idea, contact Charity at charity@county17.com

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