Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, it's one of the oldest traditions of the Thanksgiving meal.

Depending on your traditions, the Thanksgiving feast may feature pecan pie over pumpkin, cornbread dressing instead of oyster stuffing, and deep fried turkey rather than a roasted bird. No matter the menu, there will likely be plenty of side dishes—including cranberry sauce. Americans eat more than 400 million pounds of cranberries every year, 20 percent of which are consumed during the week of Thanksgiving, reports Ocean Spray.

Whether you prefer your cranberries cooked with water and sugar into a sauce, raw in a relish, or from a can, adding cranberries to your Thanksgiving plate allows you to partake in one of the oldest Thanksgiving traditions. Here's what we know about its origins.

Raymond Hom

Was Cranberry Sauce Served at the First Thanksgiving?

A native North American fruit, cranberries grow mostly in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. It's debatable whether or not there were cranberries at the first Thanksgiving. While not much is known about the food consumed by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe during the 1621 harvest celebration, it likely included deer instead of turkey, plus corn and shellfish.

As sugar wasn't widely available at the time, it's doubtful that cranberry sauce as we know it today was served at the dinner. But cranberries may have played some sort of role, as the Wampanoag tribe used the fruit for a variety of things—including dye, medicine, and food.

If the Pilgrims and the Native Americans ate cranberries at that festival, it was probably in the form of pemmican, a dish of crushed cranberries and dried meat. In the years that followed, the dish evolved and it wasn't long before cranberries became a popular ingredient among the settlers.


How Cranberry Farming and Cranberry Sauce Evolved

In the 1800s, Americans began farming cranberries and what is now known as dry harvesting (which entails picking the cranberries by hand). It was time-consuming and hard work, but this is the same process used to pick the fresh cranberries you see at the supermarket.

In the early 1900s, someone realized that flooding the bogs where cranberries grew loosens the berries from the vines until they fall off and float to the surface. Known as wet harvesting, this is quicker and less laborious than dry harvesting. At about the same time, Ocean Spray began selling those cans of cranberry sauce that you might have grown up with as a Thanksgiving tradition.

There are reports of what we consider traditional cranberry sauce—which requires stewing the cranberries in water and sugar—dating back to the 1630s. By the 1860s, cranberry sauce was so ingrained as an American dish, that General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly ordered that cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their Thanksgiving meal.

Whichever cranberry recipe you end up eating on Thanksgiving, it just might be the most venerable dish on your menu.

Ready for more cranberries? Watch how to make Sweet-and-Spicy Cranberry Sauce:

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