One autumn, sometime between Labor Day and Halloween, we kids bundled off to school, still happy and proud in our new school clothes, while Mom, clad in jeans and a flannel shirt, caught her carpool. Where did she go? What did she do? She'd gone to work at the cranberry 'factory,' and if it hadn't been for a class field trip that same year, we never would have appreciated Mom's new job.
It wasn't really a factory, we discovered, but a series of bogs where seasonal workers harvested, sorted and shipped the crisp berries to the city for processing - or to be sold fresh across the nation in time for the winter holidays.
Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States, so our school administrators deemed a trek to the marsh an appropriate educational pursuit. It wasn't far, and as we disembarked from our school bus in a makeshift parking lot, the unmistakable scent of autumn hit us. Against the brilliance of the autumn leaves, our bus looked downright washed out. As we walked to the marsh, the colors changed from yellow, orange and gold to a vibrant crimson. I mean fuchsia … sort of scarlet, pink? Well, it was cranberry colored! Millions of berries bobbed on the surface of the bog like fishing floats for elves. My classmates and I watched as a harvester, a man-driven machine that looked like a cross between a farmer's combine and an alien's space ship, raked up the berries, which were sent ashore via conveyor belt.
With cheeks and noses as rosy as the harvest, we continued our tour at the sorting belts. Countless roly-poly berries jiggled down the conveyor. On either side, women picked out the rogues - those that were damaged, too green or spoiled. No machine could do what these able women did: keen eyes spotting a defective berry and deft hands plucking it off the belt without mercy! There, amid all those heroines stood Mom; plaid sleeves rolled up, scarf preventing her curls from obstructing her vision. Those shiny berries didn't stand a chance with her at the helm.
Autumn field trips and cranberries are the stuff from which memories and history are made. After all, the crane berry is a native American fruit.
Whether they graced the first Thanksgiving table is debated by historians, but what would Thanksgiving be without the threat of a cranberry stain on Grandma's white linen cloth?
Didn't homesteaders string popcorn and cranberries to adorn their Christmas trees? Magazines touting country life and decorating ensure us that they did. Furthermore, doesn't your aunt's parish cookbook have at least one killer cranberry recipe? Mine does.
I might get in trouble for writing this, but I think that a golden loaf of hot cranberry bread might be more patriotic than apple pie. Try these recipes and decide for yourself.
Quick Cranberry Bread
This is truly an old-fashioned, all-American treat.
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1 cup orange juice
4 tablespoons hot water
2 cups sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
2 cups chopped cranberries
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease two 5-by-9-by-3-inch loaf pans.
Sift together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda; set aside. In a separate bowl, beat eggs; whisk in butter, juice and water. Stir egg mixture and sugar into sifted ingredients. Fold in nuts and cranberries.
Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans.
Crazy Cranberry Jelly
You'll have a popping good time making this jelly with children. The cranberries pop in the kettle like popcorn, keeping the little ones' attention.
The recipe only takes about 30 minutes, and it produces a delicious jelly you can keep in the refrigerator and spread on your cranberry bread.
1 bag (12 oz.) fresh cranberries
1 cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
Wash cranberries, disposing of any that are black or squishy.
Place cranberries in a saucepan. Add boiling water and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Watch the cranberries so they don't burn, and listen for them to pop. Do not put your face close to the pan.
Once they've popped, let them cool. With the back of a large spoon, push berries through a sieve, catching the juice in a bowl.
Pour juice into a clean saucepan; cook and stir over medium heat for 3 minutes. Slowly add sugar; cook for 2 to 4 minutes more. Juice will thicken into syrup.
Pour into a clean jar and let cool. Refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.
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