Cranberries, that traditional Thanksgiving sauce that makes every turkey dinner complete, are truly America’s own homegrown fruit. While the Wampanoag Indians may have brought cranberries to that first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, the Pilgrims probably ate them raw since they had no access to sugar to make sauce.
Today, American cranberries are enjoyed in Japan, Malaysia, Europe, the British Isles, and around the world thanks in large part to the Wisconsin cranberry growers and processors who annually produce half of the world’s cranberry supply or around 30 billion cranberries every year.
It was a gorgeous October morning when I found myself in the middle of 6100 acres of cranberries at Glacial Lake Cranberries in Wisconsin Rapids. Owner Mary Brazeau Brown was pointing out the 96 flats of cranberries and their reservoirs necessary for commercially growing the fruit. Harvesting was underway and workers clad in thigh high waders were gently pushing the floating red berries toward the harvester and up into the dump trucks.
|Mumbai Cranberry Mango Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups (6 servings of !/4 cup each)
This simple sauce of seasonal fruits (dried and fresh) packs an unexpected punch thanks to the blackened red chilies. For an unusual dessert serve this warm over a bowl of ice cold vanilla ice cream for an amazing blend of American and Indian flavors. Or serve the sauce cold or at room temperature as a refreshing sauce with roasted turkey, chicken or pork.
1 tablespoon canola oil
1. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the pan, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn), about 30 seconds. Stir in the chilies and allow them to blacken and smell smoky, about 30 seconds.
2. Add the cranberries, mango, and raisins. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the raisins are plump, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Sprinkle in the sugar and nutmeg and cook, stirring, so it melts, 2 to 4 minutes. Pour in the water and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens,
15 to 20 minutes. Remove and discard the chilies. Sauce may be stored in the refrigerator for several days in a covered container.
“My grandfather used to take the train to this area every year to pick cranberries by hand,” Brown recalled. Before water harvesting was invented laborers had the backbreaking chore of picking the berries off of the ground level, water drenched plants with a large slotted wooden scoop. After repeatedly running the scoop along the ground to pull the cranberries off of the plants, water would drain away through the slots leaving the ripened berries. Once the scoop was full it would be turned in for a chit that was later redeemed for cash.
While cranberries have grown wild in the Glacial Lake area for centuries, commercial production began in 1873 by lumberman John B. Arpin. In 1923 the operation was sold to a group of investors including Mary’s grandfather T. W. Brazeau and by 1931 it was entirely owned by Brazeau and his two sons. The Brazeau family continued to manage and expand the marsh and in 1988 Mary became sole owner and president. Along with husband Phil Brown, their children and a dedicated staff, Mary operates the marsh year round.
Once the harvesting is completed and the water is pumped back into the reservoirs new buds begin to form on the plants for next year’s berries. To protect the buds from harsh winter winds, water from the reservoirs is released to cover the plants and freeze until spring. A thin layer of sand is added on top of the ice so when the spring thaw comes, the new supply of sand filters down over the plants and the growing season begins. Different varieties ripen at different times so harvesting runs from early September to late October.
Like other marshes in the area Glacial Lake is surrounded by a rim of natural forest and woods providing a refuge for deer, fox, and other animals. The lake in the center of the acreage doubles as the main reservoir for the flats and is a wildlife refuge for waterfowl such as sand cranes, ducks, tundra swans, and bald eagles.
Water is a necessity in growing cranberries and one reason Wisconsin has so many growers. With a large number of glacially formed river and lake beds, the area’s water table is high and water is readily available. In fact to grow Glacial Lakes 96 cranberry beds covering 300 acres of land, 3,000 acres of water reservoirs are needed. By managing the reservoirs there is always plenty of water in dry summers and a place to pump excess water in rainy ones. It is also essential for the water harvesting method that floods the flats once the berries are red forcing the ripened berries to float to the top and be moved with relative ease to the waiting trucks.
Once the trucks are filled they take a short drive to nearby processing plants such as the family-owned Urban Cranberries in Wisconsin Rapids.
Tricia Urban Anderson gave me a tour of their giant processing plant filled with huge stainless steel tanks, automatic washing machines, electronic sorters, and a series of giant dryers that process 10 million pounds of finished berries each year. Starting with a two-story high drive-in freezer where the berries are stored awaiting processing, Urban Processing operates around-the-clock every day of the year (except major holidays). It produces cranberry extract that is later made into jams, jellies, syrups and juice and dried cranberries that may later be covered in chocolate, added to trail mix, or become the base for other gourmet snacks under the Urban label. Since Urban also operates its own cranberry marsh some of the berries processed here are truly family grown and processed from start to finish.
While the Pilgrims may have been among the early immigrants in America to taste cranberries, later immigrants have found this “new” fruit an unfamiliar taste. Vietnam native Thom Pham of ThanhDo and Thom Pham’s Wondrous Azian Kitchen so much disliked the cranberries served by his Minneapolis adoptive family every holiday that he decided to find a way to make them interesting. So he developed a number of Asian fusion recipes including his signature Cranberry Cream Cheese Wontons with Chilies, Spanker Soup, Red Coconut Milk Curry with Cranberries, and Mashed Sweet Potatoes infused with Grand Manier and Cranberries.
Around Thanksgiving, Lucia’s restaurant in Uptown, Minneapolis, creates a salsa of fresh, ground cranberries and chilies for dipping with taco chips.
We asked Asian Culinary Arts Institutes’ education director and award winning cookbook author and cooking teacher Raghavan Iyer to create a cranberry recipe suitable for the holidays featuring flavors of India. Since cranberries were not part of his mother’s home cooking in Mumbai, India, Iyer chose to create a sauce featuring raw (or frozen) cranberries cooked with mangoes and chilies. It can be served cold or at room temperature as a refreshing sauce with roasted turkey, chicken or pork, or serve warm over ice cold vanilla ice cream as a tasty dessert.
For more information on the Wisconsin Rapids cranberry area, go to www.visitwis rapids.com or call their office at 800-554-4484. Ask for their annual visitors guide filled with sightseeing, shopping, restaurant and accommodation information. There are a variety of wildlife areas to visit, lakes and rivers to fish, and cranberry marshes to tour. Glacial Lake Cranberry has its own roadside information center complete with cranberry cookbooks and products, and features guided Berry Bus tours of the marsh. For additional information go to www.cranberry link.com or call 715-887-4161. While fall is a particularly colorful time to visit and the only time to see cranberry harvesting, the area is beautiful all year round. Urban Processing offers its Urban Best cranberry products and gift packages via www.cranberryproducts.com or call 866-713-5200 for their colorful gift catalog.
Phyllis Louise Harris is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher specializing in Asian foods. She is founder of the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes Ltd. dedicated to the preservation, understanding and enjoyment of the culinary arts of the Asia Pacific Rim. For information about ACAI’s programs call 612-813-1757 or visit the website at www.asian culinaryarts.com.