Thanksgiving and cranberries go together like a horse and carriage — though, sorry, I couldn’t find anything viable to rhyme with “cranberries.” But you get the idea and it’s not going to stop me from forging ahead with my column this week.
So, cranberries… one can’t open that topic without thinking about our premier Peninsula cranberrian couple Malcolm and Ardell McPhail who’ve been growing that tart and tasty offering for decades.
Our little refreshing berry, part of the heather family, is rich in healthy stuff: vitamin C, a great antioxidant; magnesium, needed for growth and metabolic health; vitamins E and K1 (essential for blood clotting); and trace elements of copper (often low in Western diets). It’s also a great source of fiber.
And may I also add — just because these 500-dollar words are fun — cranberries have flavonol polyphenols, quercetin, myricetin, peonidin, ursolic acid, and the ever popular A-type proanthocyanidins or condensed tannins (the ingredient that doctors think can help in combatting UTIs). All that packed into one little berry!
The straight skinny
I spoke to Malcolm last week and, first, there is one major correction I need to make to the record. I’ve written several times in the past about the success of Jared and Jessika’s organic cranberries, but, though those two made a valiant effort, Malcolm sets me straight on this one — it didn’t pan out.
“Organic cranberries were a disaster here. Jared and Jessika bought that bog from Bob Hamilton but it didn’t work — each year there was less production. They had horsetail and yellow loose strife and every year those just got worse and worse. We have a dickens of a time with weeds here. If you get a perennial crop of weeds that get well rooted, you can’t deal with them without chemicals.”
“If you start with a bog with absolutely no perennial weeds, you could probably make it for seven or eight years before it catches up to you. And I know people will pay more for organics, but the fact is that the world would starve if we didn’t have agricultural fertilizer and chemicals.” Malcolm knows whereof he speaks; he was also an extension agent in Chehalis before becoming a cranberry grower here.
Bow down to farmers
I learned so much in my 15-minute conversation with Malcolm that I hardly know where to start. Suffice it to say, all of us who blithely purchase food at our favorite groceries have no idea what it takes to get those produce, fruit, meat, and dairy items onto our store shelves.
For instance, if a cranberry farmer decides to plant a bog of the newer variety of cranberries — these produce more efficiently than the older varieties — it takes four years before you get a full crop. Meanwhile, in those four years, you’re paying for weeding, trimming, mowing, and maintaining those plants. Plus, these newer varieties are expensive and must be shipped from the East Coast. And, to add insult to injury, the cranberry grower must pay a annual royalty on the crop.
It makes one wonder why anyone would choose to become a farmer in the first place. But fortunately it’s a lifestyle adored by many. Malcolm tells me that he has about three and a half employees: one as been working the bogs for 30 years, another for 20 years; and the newest one is a woman who moved here with her husband from Pennsylvania and has a degree from Temple in fine arts. He looked out the window and said, “She’s got a pitchfork in her hands right now piling up cuttings.”
Malcolm shared with me what is involved in preparing a new bog as he’s in the process of doing. First you “scalp” the soil five inches deep to create the bog; then you haul in by truck and then pump in — as an example for a one acre bog — 85 loads of sand! All this before you even start the planting process (and the expense, see above).
So, all that said, back to the Thanksgiving feast where cranberries now are de rigeur. And for this we must thank Massachusetts resident Marcus L Urann, who in 1941 revolutionized the cranberry industry by inventing the jellied cranberry “log” that we know so well. Zip open that tin and skootch the contents out onto a plate, maybe with a couple lettuce leaves under it. Marcus was a marketing genius who left his legal career, bought a bog, set up cooking facilities, and took advantage of the new technology of canning to extend the cranberry season from roughly six weeks for fresh-picked to all year-round.
Now we Americans use roughly 5,062,500 gallons of “jellied cranberry sauce” Ocean Spray’s official name for this delicacy. (Ocean Spray is the cooperative of 600 independent growers across the United States that work together to set prices and standards.) That’s four million pounds of cranberries — 200 berries in each can — and Malcolm and Ardell’s berries are part of the mix!
I asked Ardell if she has any special Thanksgiving cranberry favorites. “I bake cranberries with yams and pineapple. And I might make cranberry scones for the next days after Thanksgiving. My family likes a cooked cranberry sauce.”
Nanci Main’s long-time friend — they were elementary school pals — Janet Rose offers this recipe for those of us who like the uncooked cranberry relish.
Ingredients: Four cups fresh raw cranberries, one large navel orange cut in pieces, one 20 ounce can of crushed pineapple (well drained), ¾ cup of granulated sugar, one cup finely chopped celery, one cup chopped walnut pieces.
Grind the cranberries with the orange (rind and all) and place in a bowl with the drained pineapple and sugar. Chill. Just before serving add the celery and walnuts. As Janet says, “You can add these in at the same time if you want, but doing it just before serving keeps the celery green and the relish crunchier. Walnuts stay fresher too.”
So wherever you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast, be sure to put some cranberries on the table. And when you do think of Malcolm and Ardell and all the other farmers struggling with both changing climate (Malcolm says, “November has been good to us this year, though a lot of us had freeze damage last January"); and recent tariffs (“Yes, we’ve been affected by Trump’s shenanigans. The Chinese added cranberries to their tariff list to get past speaker Paul Ryan’s attention”). Ryan represented Wisconsin, a major cranberry-producing state.
Gratitude doesn’t have a season, but it seems to me that Thanksgiving is an especially appropriate time to thank the folks who make sure we get this celebratory feast on the table.