Cranberries swell and swirl atop flooded fields of low-lying vines. Jostled from their stems and buoyed by inner air pockets, the fruits bob along the water's surface, above their centuries-old beds. After the berries are corralled -- coaxed into floating rings and packed so tightly you can almost hear them squeak -- they resemble pop-art splashes, giant lily pads drifting across the rust-colored wetland.
The annual harvest is a crowd puller. Berry-peeping tourists watch as farmers don waders and make their way into the crimson tide, which covers more than 14,000 acres in southeastern Massachusetts and leaves pockets of several other states in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest submerged in color.
This time of year is a good one for the home cook, and has been for centuries. Cranberries are jewels of life, having nurtured and sustained American Indians for many generations. Knowing a good thing, they have harnessed the fruit's brilliant color for dyes, mashed the berries into poultices, and pounded them into deer-meat pemmican -- a must for long winters.
Today, the cranberry is still appreciated for its rebellious color, breathtakingly sharp flavor, and health-giving qualities. A relative of the blueberry, the fruit is endowed with much-publicized antioxidant, antibacterial, and potentially anti-inflammatory properties that have brought big business to farmers and good health to consumers.
The vast majority of cranberries that make their way to market are wet-harvested from the fields, rinsed and sorted, and then juiced, jellied, dried, or otherwise processed. The jolly red berries found fresh in produce aisles are spared the deluge; they are instead carefully dry-harvested -- machine-forked from the vines -- before being subjected to intense scrutiny. Only those berries that bounce to a certain height are deemed worthy of the Thanksgiving table and bestowed a passing mark, a quaint yet effective means of sorting that dates to the late 1800s.
Although typically associated with savory sauces and relishes, cranberries can work their magic in myriad ways beyond a splash of ruby color alongside the holiday roast. They are perhaps set off to greatest effect in the last course. Sweetened with sugar and softened over gentle heat, they offer a tempered tartness that brings a welcome, if unexpected, element to unabashedly sweet desserts. Whether strewn across a tart, poached with other fall fruits, pooled atop a cloudlike meringue, or layered with sweetened ricotta to re-create the swirls of the harvest, cranberries are autumn's most stunning arrival.