On Thanksgiving Day the United States and her sons and daughters, if they are able, feast. In thousands and thousands of homes in this country, cranberry in some form appears upon the table, and wanderers in foreign lands express regret if unable to season their feast with this same tart fruit of the swamp.
Historians, authoritative and otherwise, have written tomes upon the subject of the cranberry and how it happened to become a part of the traditional Thanksgiving feast. The latter, originating in New England, took its pattern from that first menu in Plymouth, wherein wild game formed the principal dish, there being no other meat, and the side dishes being such as the colony produced; that is, cultivated vegetables of both English and Indian origin, together with the wild berries which the settlers had learned from their Indian friends to use as food.
But the cranberry, sour as a rule, often difficult to harvest because of water when growing in its wild state — men have wondered how it happened to be included. Josiah (Walk with God) Eldridge of Cape Cod, who married into the Chilmark family of Burgess, had this tradition, which is as good as any, and it is repeated here for what it is worth.
The cranberry was a medicine. The Indian, he said, lived mainly upon fish and meat, with some fowl and shellfish, and very little vegetable matter. An unvarying diet, yet, Josiah observed, the Indians did not suffer from scurvy or similar complaints, as did the white settlers when forced to eat the same variety of food for weeks and perhaps months on end. Writing in his journal under date of January, 1674, he states:
“Ye savage hath an uncannie instinct, bordering upon that of ye wilde beastes, which he employeth in ye matter of ye preparation and dressing of foode. Yea, as ye wilde catte doth eat of certain grasses and plantes, which are foreign to ye diet of such an animal, soe doth ye Injian mixe and combine certain berries with hys meate and thus secure hys health.
“He collecteth of ye huckleberrie, ye boxeberrie and ye cranberrie, which, being well-dried, he poundeth to meale, and when hys meat being stewed, and particularly when preserved for future use, he mixeth well with thys meal of berries the which doth warm and sweeten his inward self.
“Inne ye preparation of pemmicon ye boxeberrie is favored except whenne ye meat be that of deere. Ye pemmicon of deere is mixed, if it be available, with ye huckleberrie, and much of ye fatte is retained therein. So goodlie is this food yet but an small portion be sufficient to satisfie a manne, een though he be spent from toil and weary from travail.
“Yet Innamuck, ye chieftain, hath said that always hys people seek diligently for ye cranberries, and gather great store, as much as may be, and that they doe eat, particularly in time of great snowe, of this dried berrie, pounded or noe, for fear of sickness. He hath also said that seasons hath been known when ye cranberrie withered and blighted, and there were few or none, whence from ye lack, ye Injians, their wives and children did suffer sore from ye maladie.”
There is a similar note to some of this ancient lore. Island whalemen, wintering in the far north, have told of the Eskimo pemmicon, made from venison or other meats, and well mixed with the huckleberry, which is found there in great quantity. Western Indians are known to have used the boxberry in similar fashion, and also various barks which they dried and pounded to powder, or boiled with their meat. Miners in the Klondike in the days of the great gold strike, learned from the northern Indians to make spruce tea, which served to supply certain needed elements of diet and prevented scurvy.
Living conditions such as the greater portion of the country know, provide a diet which is more or less balanced through the year. It is not, therefore necessary to eat cranberry with the holiday dinner except as the eating gives enjoyment, yet it is interesting, in the light of tradition, to note how the cranberry, originally not-too-tasty necessity of diet, has become a delicacy eagerly sought from coast to coast.
Therefore, eat heartily of the cranberry. Prepared in customary fashion it is delightful. Besides it is good for you, and if indeed you overeat and suffer therefrom for any period, brief or extended, be doubly thankful for the cranberry in the menu. Without it you might well be more distressed. Josiah hath said so, and he claimed to know.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner