Thousands of years ago, glaciers scraped across the land, carving deep crevices that filled with water and glacial debris. Those crevices became the bogs we know today, which is where you will find the wild cranberry.
Cranberries have been growing in Great Lakes bogs for over 10,000 years. Indigenous peoples have enjoyed them equally as long for both food and medicine and they still are highly revered in ceremony at fall harvest time.
Indigenous Americans recognized the value of the cranberry; its antioxidants and vitamin C content were helpful in the winter months. Wild cranberries were one of the original foods offered to the colonists by the Wampanoag Tribe, making it synonymous with Thanksgiving as we know it today.
Over the past few decades, the cranberry has held a lowly place at the table of many Americans’ Thanksgiving celebrations — primarily in the shape of a can as a jelly. Thankfully, it is reclaiming its place as an important, local food of the Great Lakes region. Chefs are bringing it back into use as chutneys, relishes, spreads and even in cranberry-infused cocktails. Commercial cultivation of cranberries is on the rise, and wild food enthusiasts are heading out into bog land in search of its wild counterpart.
Foraged flavors for the Thanksgiving table
The cranberry wildly grows as an evergreen vining plant that spreads across rocky outcrops and low-lying brush and bogs. Keep an eye out in late summer for signs of the vine and fruit, as it will be ready for harvest in the fall.
The berries easily can be gathered by hand into baskets. Berries can be used right away as fresh fruits or dried in a dehydrator for baking, porridge and snacking. Firm, clean and dry cranberries can be stored for many months in dry cloth market bags in the bottom of the refrigerator or cold storage through the winter.
While there is no immediate threat of overharvesting of the wild cranberry, the rapid rate in which wetlands and bogs are disappearing to development and watershed pollution is alarming and directly threatens the future of this native food. In seeking out this special plant, take a moment to reflect and give thanks for what these lands have offered all of us across the seasons. ≈
Michigan wild cranberry chutney
This recipe adds a fresh, tangy flavor that accompanies a roasted, heirloom turkey and pairs well with a Michigan sauvignon blanc.
2 cups of fresh, wild cranberries
¾ cup maple syrup
½ cup red wine
2 apples cored, unpeeled and chopped
¼ cup finely shredded orange peel
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Combine cranberries, syrup, spices and wine in a saucepan. Cover saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. The skins will pop on the cranberries and the spices and syrup will dissolve. Reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat and stir in the chopped apples and orange peel. Set aside to cool, and the chutney will thicken as it approaches room temperature. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
– Lisa M. Rose, Michigan BLUE Magazine | photography courtesy iStock