cranberry setFor many families, “cranberries” have come to mean the red jelly that comes in a cylindrical loaf that slides from a can. This form of “cranberry sauce” had become so ubiquitous by the beginning of the 1960s that my mother-in-law actually received, as a gift, a WM Rogers Silverplate Cranberry set, designed specifically to serve a 15-ounce can of the stuff.

Of course, it was also the Native Americans who first created cranberry sauce — sweetening with maple sugar or honey — long before European settlers had arrived on these shores. They would often eat cranberries raw, a practice which the modern inhabitants of the new world would probably find difficult at best. They prized the berry not only as a food but also as a fabric dye and a poultice for wounds. The acid content of cranberries is extremely high, which made them extremely valuable as a winter food because their shelf life more closely resembles a chemical “half life.”

As far as I have been able to discover, there is no one farming cranberries in Iowa, where I live. To find the nearest (and therefore freshest) berries, we must look to our neighbors to the north in Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of my favorite farms is Alder Lake Cranberries in Wisconsin. Theirs is a family-owned farm that’s been growing strong for more than 60 years.

Cranberries.Photo: catharticfluxGood cranberry sauce is very easy to make and relatively cheap. My grandma was famous in our family for writing out recipes that began with things like “Take a bottle of cream … ” without any indication, for those of us who grew up in the post-milkman era, what the size of a “bottle” might be. And so here, in her words, is my Grandma Friese’s “Whole Cranberries.”

“1 cup water, 1 cup Port wine, 1 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, lemon rind, all together to a boil for about 10 minutes.

“Then add 1 lb. whole cranberries. Cook slowly so berries do not burst too much. After mixture looks about right, add one more cup of wine and let cool.”

That’s the whole thing. She used to make it way ahead of time and let it ferment; it had quite a kick.

My recipe is a bit more complicated than my grandmother’s, but is also quite tasty.

Cranberry Sauce

2 pounds fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar, or to taste
Water, to cover
1 orange, split
1 lemon, split
1 lime, split
2 nutmeg, cracked
5 cardamom pods, cracked
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cups port wine
1/4 cup candied ginger root, julienned


Combine the orange, lemon, lime, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon in a cheesecloth pouch, tie together with a string, then place in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the cranberries, water, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer for about an hour.

Add the port and the ginger, simmer for an additional 5 minutes, then remove and let cool. Serve hot or cold.