This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Crantastic: The Story of America’s Berry, first released on November 7, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
LINDA BURKE: These are fairly small ones but you can see. Right in there—that opening there—you can see where the cranberries are.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Don’t—I think I’m going to sit as I uh…
NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh I see, I see.
GRABER: Oh yeah.
TWILLEY: Just little. It’s not very spectacular. I hate to complain. And also I think because the bushes are so dense.
GRABER: It’s like we’re looking at just this big flat thicket of bush almost, is what looks like from here.
TWILLEY: The leaves are small and dark green. There’s nothing to know that you would… I mean, you really have to work to see a cranberry.
GRABER: In fact, we couldn’t see any cranberries at all in that thicket of dark, kind of dull green.
TWILLEY: So we were sitting there in a ditch totally unimpressed, and then we realized we were also kind of stuck.
GRABER: Cool. Okay, let’s see if we can get back without falling.
TWILLEY: I stuck my foot in the water so.
GRABER: I’m just going to inch up backwards here. Nicky! I need this on video.
TWILLEY: If there’s a cranberry bog I can fall into, I will. Close call there. Sometimes we have to take real risks in our reporting to get you the story.
GRABER: In case somehow you haven’t guessed what this episode is about yet, it’s cranberries!
TWILLEY: And for those of you who are really not following along, this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday—holiday for our American listeners, that is—we’re taking a closer look at that hidden fruit.
TWILLEY: Along the way, we also answer some of the big cranberry questions. Like: Why do we pretty much only eat it on the holidays?
GRABER: Does cranberry juice actually prevent urinary tract infections, and when did that juice find it’s perfect partner in vodka?
TWILLEY: And how do cranberries even grow in all that water?
GRABER: We often have big surprises—you know, big reveals—later on in our episodes. But this time we wanted to start out with a shocking one, right up front. I had absolutely no idea that bogs are not wet!
BURKE: I think consistently the most surprising thing is that cranberries don’t grow in water. And I think people have seen the Ocean Spray commercials with Justin and Henry and they’re standing out in the cranberry bogs that are flooded with cranberries and they think that’s how they grow. And that’s obviously not the case.
TWILLEY: So that is Linda Burke, of the A.D. Makepeace Company, the largest cranberry grower in the world. It was an A.D. Makepeace bog we fell into at the start of the show. And, as you will recall, I did get my right foot wet. But that was because I put it in a ditch that ran around the edge of the bog, not because the bog was wet. The bog itself was kinda dry.
GRABER: Linda mentioned Justin and Henry. For those of you who aren’t watching TV commercials these days, Justin and Henry are the stars of the Ocean Spray commercials, and they’re usually shown up to the top of their waders in water surrounded by cranberries.
TWILLEY: I feel like 90 percent of the time, Ocean Spray ads are about Justin dropping something in the water—a turkey, a laptop, whatever. And over time, we’ve all absorbed the idea: cranberry bogs are thigh deep in water.
GRABER: I’ve certainly always pictured bogs as wet—maybe not thigh-high wet, but boggy to me always sounded like something kind of damp. But a cranberry bog actually spends much of its life dry.
JOHN PORTER: Looking in many cases similar to, say, a golf course. They’ve got ditches surrounding them which may have some water in them. But for the most part they are dry conditions.
TWILLEY: This is John Porter, head of R&D at A.D. Makepeace, confirming the shocking truth: cranberry bogs are pretty much dry.
GRABER: While you’re processing that news, back to basics. What’s a cranberry?
PORTER: It is a native North American fruit, but there are other very closely related plants can be found worldwide. I remember visiting a breeder’s greenhouse, he had gone around the world and collected the various varieties and I believe he had 6,000 different closely related varieties to the cranberries that we grow here.
GRABER: Relatives like the bilberry, whortleberry, moorberry, cowberry, foxberry, partridgeberry, and farkleberry.
TWILLEY: And a couple more that you might have actually heard of: the blueberry, the lingonberry, and the huckleberry. These interrelated berries are found all over the northern hemisphere. There’s even a species called the European cranberry, although the European cranberry gets a lot of bad press for being unpleasantly flavored and bitter.
GRABER: Not that the American cranberry tastes so great without a lot of sweetening.
BURKE: They’re fairly dry. There’s a pocket of air inside, so they’ve got this almost—if you slice one in half it’s almost like a four leaf clover design inside. They’re extremely tart. And we’ll be doing our cranberry harvest celebration next weekend and we’ll get 30,000 visitors here and we’ll usually put out a dish of cranberries for kids to try, and the cranberry face that they make is really something to see because it’s very tart.
TWILLEY: I have had plenty of cranberry juice in my time, usually mixed with vodka. I’ve had cranberry muffins, I’ve had cranberry tarts, I’ve even made a delicious cranberry curd. But I’d never had a fresh whole cranberry on its own. So we bought some and washed them. All right.
TWILLEY: You ever done this?
GRABER: No, not raw. And after our discussions about cranberries and eating cranberries and other things, I’m not really excited to taste one raw.
TWILLEY: Okay, well, me neither. Bon appetit!
GRABER: Cheers… Ahhh. It’s like the most tannic, sour apple possible, is sort of what it reminds me of.
TWILLEY: I actually don’t mind the taste. What I had a problem with was the way it kind of popped in my mouth and was like “ppp,” and then there was this “whee.” The skin is kind of tough for a berry, which I don’t like. And the inside is kind of mealy but sour and tannic at the same time.
GRABER: Yeah exactly. Texture—not great. Flavor—really intense and not sweet which, okay. Not something you want to eat by the handful by themselves.
TWILLEY: So cranberry bushes look unspectacular and cranberries themselves taste kind of bad, if I’m being honest. Why did anyone ever bother eating them?
GRABER: Most berries, like blueberries or raspberries, they’re a little squishy and they taste sweet so that they’re a super attractive, easy snack for animals. That’s how they get spread around to make more berry plants.
TWILLEY: Cranberries are not like that at all. They have this kind of tough outer layer, they are filled with air rather than delicious sweet smoosh, and as we just experienced, they are mouth-dryingly tannic and mouth-puckeringly sour. But the theory is, cranberries didn’t necessarily evolve to depend on being eaten to spread their genes. Instead, the ripe berries would fall off into the bog and when it rained or flooded, they’d float away, thanks to their waterproof outer layer and lifejacket-style air pockets.
GRABER: European colonists called them bounce berries, they’re so sturdy and light. Native Americans tribes called cranberries bitter berries, and so the Native American trick was to mix them into other foods. Cranberries were dried and mixed with sweet corn into a sort of spice cake. They were pounded with fat and dried meat into pemmican, which is kind of the original protein-rich power bar.
TWILLEY: When the Europeans showed up, they adopted this bitter bouncy berry as their own.
ROBERT COX: And the rumor, the myth, is that they discovered the cranberry through Native sources.
GRABER: Robert Cox wrote the book Massachusetts Cranberry Culture. He says that the European colonists were likely already familiar with similar tart berries.
TWILLEY: In England, we have a tradition of accompanying roast duck and roast goose with gooseberry sauce, which is super tart, or serving lamb with redcurrant jelly, which is also pretty sharp and a lovely red color.
GRABER: And then some of the Puritans migrated to the colonies via the Netherlands, where they lived first for a while. At the time, the Dutch cooked with the European cranberry—the American berry’s even tinier, more bitter cousin—and they called it the kronberre.
COX: And my suspicion is that the Puritans, who knew of these relatives in England, went to the Netherlands, heard this word kronberre, came over to North America and saw this berry that grows much like the European cranberry and it tastes somewhat like the European cranberry and it is genetically similar to the European cranberry and simply appropriated the name that they knew in the Netherlands and applied it to the American berry.
TWILLEY: So, thanks to a combination of already being into tart berries, and then the Native American introduction to the local version, early New Englanders got really into cranberries, really fast.
GRABER: People joked that if you visited a New England home in the early 18th or 19th century…
COX: … the tablecloth on the table was held down at each and every corner by big pots of cranberry sauce that were served with anything for breakfast, anything for lunch, anything for dinner.
TWILLEY: And it wasn’t just New Englanders that were into their cranberries. Because of their sturdy exterior, fresh dry cranberries actually keep pretty well, just stored in a clean jar or barrel.
GRABER: So people in Massachusetts could go over to the wild cranberries growing in the nearby bogs and harvest a big bunch of them, some for their own use, and then they’d trade others to a neighbor who would batch them together…
COX: …and trade it to a merchant who would then ship them to the Caribbean, to England, to Europe, all over the United States.
GRABER: Because cranberries were harvested in the fall, they became particularly associated with Thanksgiving. And because, as we said, they shipped so well, Americans everywhere could eat cranberries for Thanksgiving.
TWILLEY: In England, we don’t have Thanksgiving. But we do eat cranberry sauce once a year, with our Christmas dinner. And hearing Rob describe the eighteenth century international cranberry trade made me think: if you harvest the berries in September and October, and then you ship them by sail across the Atlantic, then it makes sense. Fresh cranberries would have been this exotic treat arriving in London in December, just in time for the holidays. Maybe that’s where the tradition came from.
GRABER: All of this international trade made cranberries super important, both as food and as a source of income, particularly for the poor.
COX: It’s a wild resource. Part of the commons of New England, if you want to think of it that way, that was tapped by everyone in the community.
TWILLEY: And actually, for Puritans, that idea—that their new home, in New England, had this bounteous native berry that could sustain even the poorest among them—that was a sign. The cranberry made New England seem even more like the right place to achieve their particular Puritan utopia.
COX: The cranberry is really a Puritan fruit in several respects.
GRABER: First of all, cranberries have this unsweet ascetic quality to them, kind of how we think of Puritans. Also, they grow in land that wouldn’t and couldn’t support any other crops. And that land isn’t good for grazing cattle, it’s not good for sheep, it’s basically good for almost nothing edible, except cranberries. And that’s just the perfect kind of thriftiness that Puritans loved.
TWILLEY: If you’re a normal farmer, the land in this part of Massachusetts is pretty terrible. It’s sandy and its rocky. The problem started a while back, during the last ice age: ice sheets covered the landscape and when they retreated, they left behind all this sand and gravel, and they also scoured the land, leaving behind little hollows where bogs formed.
GRABER: Whenever you dig around here do you hit sand everywhere? Is everywhere sandy here?
PORTER: Yes. All due to the last ice age.
GRABER: Thank you, last ice age, for our cranberries. Sandy soils are also very acidic, and so are cranberries. Those berry vines love acidic soil.
PORTER: The ideal pH for cranberry bog is somewhere between about four and a half to five.
GRABER: A little less sour than a grapefruit.
TWILLEY: In other words, if you wanted to design a landscape for cranberries, it would look like Cape Cod.
GRABER: Cape Cod’s sandy acidic bogs were good for one other thing, other than cranberries, and that’s bog iron.
TWILLEY: Bog iron is these pea-sized nodules of iron that form when dissolved iron particles in water get precipitated out as little nuggets by the acid levels in the bog. In New England, where there was no good iron to be mined, people would go digging in bogs to harvest these little iron nuggets and melt them down for use.
GRABER: And then, the bog iron ran out.
BURKE: And what we were left with was a big hole in the ground and that, ultimately, as happens on Cape Cod and in this area, filled in with sand and cranberries started taking root there. And the gentleman who started the commercial cultivation aspect of it realized that, wow, if you did this deliberately you could really make some money off cranberries. So he started the first cranberry farm that way.
GRABER: Up until the early 1800s, people just collected cranberries wild. The gentleman Linda is referring to—he was a sea captain named Henry Hall, and he was the first to have a commercial cranberry farm two hundred years ago. Most people believe Henry Hall invented cranberry farming.
COX: The problem with that idea is that cranberries had already been cultivated many years before.
TWILLEY: Rob says that it’s actually my people, the English, who got into the cranberry farming game first. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was a big movement to quote improve native crops—British botanists and horticulturalists were all working on how to domesticate and breed exotic species from all over the world. One of the most famous was a guy called Sir Joseph Banks, and he figured out how to grow cranberries in an artificial bed in the middle of an artificial lake.
COX: And he even estimated how many pies you could make and how many barrels of cranberry you could produce on how many square feet of land.
TWILLEY: So people knew how to cultivate cranberries, but still, commercial cranberry farming took a few years to catch on.
GRABER: But by the early 1800s, the time was finally right to move from wild harvesting to cultivation. And the reason is that, frankly, cranberries were just too popular, and there weren’t enough of them.
COX: And so we get a competition for access to the commons. And towns in Massachusetts deal with this by passing laws saying that you can’t use rakes to gather cranberries, for instance.
GRABER: There was such a rush on the bogs during harvest season that some towns restricted the dates you could harvest.
TWILLEY: And that’s the background against which Mr. Henry Hall starts his commercial cranberry farm, in the village of Dennis, Massachusetts. He starts selling his cranberries in 1816, and over the next eighty years, cranberry farming really takes off. On the Cape, boggy land that was worth nothing before began selling for astronomical sums—$100 an acre.
GRABER: We are talking about a cranberry craze. And not just in New England, cranberry farming started to spread around the country.
COX: There were a lot of fortunes made on this little tiny nondescript but delicious fruit.
TWILLEY: The cranberry bog we visited—A.D. Makepeace—it was one of these nineteenth century cranberry empires.
BURKE: The company was founded in 1854, by Abel Makepeace, hence the name, and he was a farmer on the Cape. And I think he was initially growing potatoes and then got kind of caught up in what at the time was becoming a craze for cranberries. And he became—we have a story from The New York Times from around the late 1800s where he was referred to as “the Cranberry King.”
TWILLEY: This was a brand new commercial crop. In the past, when cranberries were just growing wild, people picked them by hand—whole families, kids included.
GRABER: But now cranberry farmers needed something that would work on a commercial scale. So Abel and his farm workers invented brand new cranberry harvesting tools such as the scoop.
BURKE: I’m looking around because we usually have one of the old scoops around and I do see one out in the hallway. It’s a handheld thing with tines on the end of it. It’s made of wood and it’s got a square bottom, and it was run across the surface of the bog and the berries would get caught in the tines and fall into the pocket of this scoop.
TWILLEY: Rob says it’s kind of like picking head lice from a child—the tines sweep along the length of the vines and pull off the cranberries.
GRABER: For most of the history of cranberry farming, this is how cranberries were harvested. People walked on dry land, and used those scoops to pluck the dry berries. But today farmers mostly harvest a different way—which we saw in action at A.D. Makepeace.
(SOUNDS OF HARVESTING MACHINES)
TWILLEY: They look like little water bugs or something you know?
GRABER: Like floating on top of the water. I think this is as close as we can get without getting wet.
TWILLEY: This is what you’re picturing when you think of cranberry bogs with guys in waders and the pink berries bobbing around on the surface. It’s called wet harvesting. And nobody knows who invented it, but it first took off in Wisconsin.
(SOUNDS OF HARVESTING MACHINES)
GRABER: What are those guys in the waders doing?
BURKE: That’s called the stick man, the guy with the stick. And he is going through in advance of the machinery to make sure that there aren’t any unexpected holes or ditches or other imperfections in the surface of the bog that will cause them to get stuck up there.
GRABER: Those spidery-looking machines churning through the water were invented after World War II to make water harvesting much easier.
BURKE: What they’re doing is knocking the berries off the vines and the berries will float to the surface because they’ve got a little pocket of air inside them. And then the bogs will be flooded a little bit more and the berries will be racked, which means that they’re kind of corralled by a plastic boom and then they’re pumped into a truck.
TWILLEY: The day we were there, the skies were this gorgeous autumnal blue and it’s hard to describe how beautiful the flooded bog was. We couldn’t stop staring at it.
BURKE: We have people who come to paint. They’ll set up an easel on the side of a bog while the harvest is going on. We have photography clubs come to visit because it’s such a beautiful thing. They all like to see it at a particular light very early in the morning, which makes it just stunning.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I were comparing the drifts of cranberries floating atop the water to a Monet water lily painting—the cranberries were like these impressionist clouds of pink. Although with an industrial soundtrack from the harvesting machines
BURKE: I think the real visual is the reflection of the blue sky in the water that’s flooding the bog and the berries looking almost like clouds on the surface of the water. Many of them are a deep dark red but some of them are a lighter color. And that’s just because they were growing under the canopy of the vines, so they just don’t have they don’t redden up as much as some of the other ones do.
GRABER: So there’s this undulation of shades of pink and red and it is gorgeous. But flooding isn’t just for harvest. Wild bogs do flood naturally—that’s why they’re called bogs, they’re low-lying and they have a dense layer of organic matter underneath that keeps the water from draining too quickly.
TWILLEY: Cranberry plants can survive a week with their roots underwater in a flooded bog—longer in the winter when they’re not growing. And so farmers take advantage of that by flooding the bog every so often, throughout the year.
PORTER: During the wintertime we will apply floods to basically protect the plants from drying out. The ground will freeze, the plants, if they’re exposed to cold drying air, they are going to be losing a lot of moisture, and to keep that from happening we’ll put the flood on.
GRABER: Floods also kill pests and weeds that would compete with cranberries. They’re an important tool in cranberry farming, and they have been since the early days of commercial cultivation.
TWILLEY: A lot of A.D. Makepeace’s cranberry bogs go back to those early days. Some have been in operation for more than a century
PORTER: These strangely shaped bogs, some of them can be well over a hundred years old and many of them are old iron ore pits that were filled in and then converted into cranberry bogs.
GRABER: But we went with John to see some of A.D. Makepeace’s new bogs being built.
PORTER: This is part of a 200-acre bog project which will take about 10 years to build out. These will all be the state-of-the-art.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I were standing with John at the edge of a series of huge shallow rectangular pits. Some of the rectangles were kind of brown, but some were filled with perfectly flat bright white sand, like a beach volleyball court for giants.
PORTER: Right ahead of us we are looking at a site where they are—they’ve got about half of it built out waiting for the vines to go into it. On my left hand side as you can see they’re still putting down the organic matter and the sand.
GRABER: I never would have thought this was about to be farmland. It looked almost like an expanse of desert. John and his colleagues have put in underground pipes to pump water from below the plants, so they can can save water by using it more precisely. They’ve got underground sensors to monitor moisture and oxygen.
PORTER: And we’re also putting in a new variety here that should be producing about 600 to 650 barrels per acre or 60 to 65,000 pounds per acre.
GRABER: That’s about three times as many cranberries as the older varieties. Truly, the cranberry bog of the future!
TWILLEY: But who is going to eat all these cranberries? I mean, there has to be a limit to the amount of sauce we can spoon down each Thanksgiving or Christmas, right?
GRABER: So maybe we should all be drinking it instead. Because can’t cranberry juice help prevent UTIs?
TWILLEY: Cynthia, you and I each ate a fresh cranberry for the first time earlier this episode. But until relatively recently, that’s how cranberries came: as fresh berries. People bought them fresh and made sauce with them at home. Nowadays, though, only a tiny amount of America’s cranberries are bought fresh.
GRABER: And that is thanks to Marcus Urann, the man with a plan. He was a lawyer originally, and then he quit to buy a cranberry bog. This is at the start of the twentieth century. And almost immediately, he came up with a brand new business model for cranberries.
COX: So rather than selling dry berries to people at home who can then turn it into sauce, they actually pick berries and use them on site and create sauce that they can sell in cans. And for a grower and for a concern dealing with selling cranberries, it’s a beautiful thing.
GRABER: Marcus’s brilliant new canned sauce plan worked because there were new industrial machines available for canning all that great cranberry sauce. The other thing is that wet harvesting is starting to catch on, and you can’t sell wet-harvest berries fresh. They get moldy too quickly. You have to process them.
TWILLEY: Win, win, win. Now cranberry growers have a product that they can sell year round and that works with their new wet-harvesting technique. Marcus is a cranberry hero. But he doesn’t stop with canned sauce.
GRABER: He invents cranberry incarnation after cranberry incarnation. First is the dried cranberry.
COX: But the real blockbuster was cranberry juice, cranberry cocktail.
BURKE: It’s very popular with kids and it’s very popular with vodka.
TWILLEY: Cranberry and vodka! I remember drinking that, before Red Bull got big.
GRABER: This is quite a famous drink around my parts called the Cape Codder.
TWILLEY: It was first introduced in 1945, by another of Marcus’s inventions—a cranberry grower’s cooperative.
BURKE: Which the A.D. Makepeace company helped to found with two other growers in the 1930s.
GRABER: One of those partners was the Ocean Spray preserving company—Marcus’s company. Marcus and Abel and another partner founded this cooperative to try to cooperate and market and brand cranberries together to be more effective on a national scale. It was renamed the Ocean Spray cooperative after Marcus retired. If you’ve had cranberry juice, you’ll recognize the name Ocean Spray.
TWILLEY: And the drink—vodka cranberry—when that was first introduced, the Ocean Spray cooperative called it the Red Devil. It only started to be known as the Cape Codder in the early 1960s.
GRABER: The juice, though—like Rob says, it was really really popular, and not just because of its affinity for vodka. One of the reasons is that people thought it had medical benefits.
MANISHA JUTHANI-METHA: So why is that? If you look back it looks like it really goes back to the roots of our American heritage. So the cranberry idea really comes from the Native Americans.
TWILLEY: That’s Manisha Juthani-Metha. She is an associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine where she studies, among other things, cranberries.
JUTHANI-METHA: Native Americans realized early on that cranberries could be used for a variety of different health ailments. And they felt that for urinary tract infection it could be a potential method that could prevent or treat urinary tract tract infections.
GRABER: And what the colonists also figured out was that cranberries have a lot of vitamin C, though they didn’t call it that yet.
JUTHANI-METHA: So it was certainly used for a number of things in the seventeen hundreds to prevent scurvy, when people were whaling and on boats. But the urinary tract specific benefits started to appear in the medical literature in the 1800s.
TWILLEY: This is one of those things that I think every woman has heard: if you have a urinary tract infection, which is not an uncommon thing, then you’re supposed to drink cranberry juice. I’ve certainly done it. But is there any science behind it? Does it actually work?
JUTHANI-METHA: In the 50s and 60s there were some early reports that came out that were looking at possible mechanisms and how might it be that cranberry works. But again the idea, at least in the American literature, from the beginning was almost like a foregone conclusion that it must work because we know that it works. And there were a lot of studies that came out at that point trying to figure out how could that be, why would that be.
GRABER: Early on, scientists thought maybe cranberry juice acidified the urine and that’s why it prevented UTIs. That turned out not to be the case.
TWILLEY: The next theory was that cranberry juice was high in something called proanthocyanidins, or PAC. These are tannins.
JUTHANI-METHA: And it looked like this type A PAC prevented the binding of certain types of E. coli, which is the most common cause of urinary tract infections, to bladder wall cells. And that was really how urinary tract infections were prevented. And then there were a number of different juice studies that were done in the 90s and 2000s that had mixed results. But there were some studies that looked like they might really work.
GRABER: The problem was, in general, these studies weren’t great. First of all, there was no standard dose of these PACs. Scientists tested women of all sorts of different ages, from children to nursing home residents, so that aspect of the research wasn’t standardized either. And third, the studies followed the participants for different lengths of time. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months.
JUTHANI-METHA: And the fourth was that some of the cranberry juice studies that were done have a very important component, which is that juice has hydration.
TWILLEY: And hydration—cranberry or no cranberry—Manisha says that’s actually the key to UTI prevention.
JUTHANI-METHA: And so really hydrating and sort of flushing the bladder and urinary tract system altogether is the number one way that you can actually prevent urinary tract infections.
GRABER: But maybe cranberries could help! To get to the bottom of this, Manisha decided to do her own study to determine whether cranberry juice is actually effective at preventing UTIs.
TWILLEY: And she was determined not to make the same mistakes that have plagued the previous research. Everything had to be standardized.
GRABER: The participants? All nursing home residents. The dose? Standardized, in capsules. The length of time? A year, long enough to really see if cranberries help prevent UTIs. Manisha even measured bacteria in urine, the kind you have to have to have a UTI. She wasn’t relying on her patients letting her know that they felt burning while peeing or other UTI symptoms.
JUTHANI-METHA: And unfortunately it did not work at reducing bacteria and white blood cells in the urine over the course of the year. It was basically a null study between the placebo capsules and the cranberry capsules.
TWILLEY: Null study meaning cranberry capsules did not make any difference in this population, over this amount of time.
JUTHANI-METHA: You know, I think in science sometimes people get frustrated that we’re very specific about what our studies show. But the reality is we’re trying to make it as rigorous as possible for that specific population. Because otherwise we end up with a lot of contradictory studies and people say well, does it work, does it not? I heard that there was a study that said it does and I hear that there’s a study that says it doesn’t.
GRABER: Manisha feels like, looking at the flawed research in the past and what her research shows, she thinks that cranberries probably don’t help prevent UTIs at all, in any group. Although that hasn’t been definitively proven. But she does have an intriguing but unproven theory for why cranberry got its reputation for helping with UTIs in the first place.
JUTHANI-METHA: One of the things I think is that there may be something in cranberry juice that actually reduces the burning sensation and maybe this is why Native Americans came up with it in the first place.
TWILLEY: Reducing the burning sensation of a UTI sounds like a good thing, but it’s not necessarily.
JUTHANI-METHA: Now the caveat to that is I have had patients tell me that they started having to dysuria or burning when they would urinate and they started drinking cranberry juice and the dysuria went away and they thought they were better. Only to a week later have a kidney infection so the infection went up from the bladder to the kidney and they were duped into thinking that it was gone because the burning went away.
GRABER: So it seems to me, if there’s a chance drinking cranberry juice means you don’t get the antibiotics you need to treat that UTI and prevent the infection from spreading, maybe drinking cranberry juice when you have a UTI is not such a great idea.
TWILLEY: But if it helps you, Manisha says, go ahead, as long as you still get the medical treatment you need. And I fully endorse having a little bit of cranberry juice with a vodka every now and then. It’s really quite a lovely drink.
GRABER: Cranberry juice really took off in the 60s and 70s and became pretty much the main way people consumed cranberries throughout the year. But what about Marcus Urann’s other invention, the dried cranberry?
TWILLEY: Rob Cox told us that dried cranberries had a brief moment of glory during the Second World War—they were included in soldiers rations and they became a pretty popular sweet treat. But they didn’t become mainstream until the invention of the Craisin.
COX: 1993. So they were—the Craisins came along in 1993 and they’re a marketing invention.
GRABER: This is Ocean Spray’s invention—or, maybe reinvention—once again. They have a fruit in search of a market.
COX: And they began creating this sugar-rich, delicious snack that is a parallel to raisins. They call them Craisins.
GRABER: And, like cranberry juice, Craisins are a success.
TWILLEY: Nowadays, John Porter told us, the majority of cranberries that are harvested become Craisins. In fact, these days cranberry juice is a side product of the Craisin-making process.
GRABER: Craisins’ popularity is even changing the shape of cranberries.
PORTER: There’s new varieties coming out of the universities or private breeders that are being developed through traditional breeding methods that have much higher yields, larger shape, and are very good for turning into Craisins.
TWILLEY: It’s true: Cranberries are being bred for enhanced craisinability.
PORTER: Any of the berries that have been wet-picked will be processed into Craisins or juice or sauce and that’s about 95 percent of the total crop industry-wide.
GRABER: As we said, wet-harvested berries go moldy too quickly to be sold fresh. These days 95 percent of cranberries are wet-harvested and then processed.
TWILLEY: The other five percent—the dry-harvested ones—those are the fresh ones you buy in bags in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket, for just a few weeks of the year, around the holidays.
GRABER: Cranberries are grown all over these days, from New Jersey to Wisconsin to Washington State, and from Chile to Canada. And the cranberry bogs are far more productive than in the past, so there are more than enough cranberries out there. Maybe too many. Because there’s a problem.
TWILLEY: In a way, the cranberry’s early seasonal success has doomed it.
COX: We very early adopted cranberry as one of the most important condiments at the Thanksgiving table in New England. And so cranberries—seasonal to begin with—become doubly associated with the season because they are doubly associated with Thanksgiving.
TWILLEY: Marcus Urann, and nowadays Ocean Spray: they’re fighting an uphill battle to get people to eat cranberries outside of the context of a holiday turkey dinner. They’ve been fighting that battle for a century now.
BURKE: I can tell you that we have some old ads in the basement that were developed by Ocean Spray and they were trying to get Americans interested in adding another holiday to the cranberry palate, if you will. And they wanted to have people establish this tradition of having a chicken, a roast chicken with cranberry sauce for Father’s Day. And it didn’t fly.
TWILLEY: In fact, Ocean Spray mounted a year-long advertising campaign about a chicken that was in love with cranberry. They eventually married at the 1948 Massachusetts Cranberry Festival. As part of the ad campaign, the chicken wrote romantic poetry to its cranberry love interest. I have a small sample to share: “What butter is to biscuits, what honey is to a bee, what syrup is to pancakes, cranberry is to me.”
GRABER: This might be the best love poetry I’ve heard. It’s too bad the chicken’s poems weren’t quite powerful enough—Father’s Day just doesn’t have any good tradition at all.
TWILLEY: Still, John Porter is a fully signed-up supporter of the cranberry-chicken union.
PORTER: My family will not eat a poultry dinner without having cranberry sauce available. If we don’t have any, I’ve got to run to the store to get some.
TWILLEY: Linda and John both work for one of the biggest cranberry growers, so this is not surprising, but they are big fans of thinking beyond the turkey.
BURKE: We all have cranberries in a Ziploc bag in our freezer. And I will, if I put pork in the crockpot, I’ll throw in a handful of cranberries. I put cranberries in a smoothie in the morning with other fruits.
GRABER: Cranberries: they’re not just for Thanksgiving.
TWILLEY: Or Christmas. Or turkey sandwiches.
GRABER: Or even vodka. To Linda, cranberries are super versatile. Which leads me to something that’s kind of always bugged me—we collectively go nuts for the latest berry from some exotic distant country, like goji berries and acai berries and all that.
COX: They’re exciting, they’re coming from outside. They may not have anything on the cranberry but they are new.
TWILLEY: Rob is obviously a cranberry fan. He wrote a book about cranberry culture, for heaven’s sake. But even he admits the cranberry is not always the easiest sell. It’s not new and shiny. And it’s totally tied to turkey in our minds. And it’s no blueberry, that’s for sure.
COX: The cranberry is tart and a little hard to love at first.
TWILLEY: But it’s worth it, Rob says. It’s a berry we can all be proud of.
GRABER: You can grow it in poor soils. It’s super versatile. It’s also just as good for you as any of those other exotic berries. When it’s sweetened enough, it’s really tasty. And it’s ours.
COX: So for me the cranberry is sort of the signature American fruit. It’s the bald eagle of fruits.
TWILLEY: And on that patriotic note, I will wish a very Happy Thanksgiving to our American listeners!
TWILLEY: Thanks also this episode to Linda Burke and John Porter of AD Makepeace company, Manisha Julani-Metha of Yale School of Medicine, and Robert Cox, author of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture. We have links to their bog, their papers, and their book on our website, gastropod.com.
GRABER: Where you will also find all the details on our shareathon: gastropod.com/share. It’s your chance to help us grow and recommend us to your friends and win glorious swag for doing so! Gastropod.com/share.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a new episode! Till then…