Saturday, January 26, 2019

Cranberry Orange Relish

I would have never guessed that cranberries have a dark side. But, those berries do.  It is a story of corporate hegemony, regulatory failure, and farmers' resourcefulness.  Much of the story has been told a couple of years ago by Kirsten Saladow for Quartz, but, it is a story that deserves an additional look.

According to Ms. Saladow, one company -- Ocean Spray -- controls nearly three-quarters of the cranberry farms across the United States and Canada. (That's approximately 700 farms.) Ocean Spray is also behind many of the cranberry products that line the shelves of the stores in our neighborhoods.

One would think that, based upon the packaging of Ocean Spray products and the company's advertisements, there are no issues with respect to those little berries. As Ms. Saladow writes, there is the picture of a cranberry farmer:

Cranberries are grown in bogs primarily in the northern part of the US in soft, marshy ground with acid-peat soil.  They're hard to harvest on the vines they grow on, so instead, the bogs are flooded at harvest time, water reels pull them off the vine and the cranberries float to the top, allowing them to be collected and sent off to market.  Those images you see of farmers in waders, up to their chests in water with cranberries floating all around them?  Totally accurate.

Photo from
While the image of the cranberry farmer may be "totally accurate," there is a lot more to that picture.  Back in the 1950s, Ocean Spray began to use aminotrizole, a chlorophyll inhibitor that has been proven to cause "growths" in rats.  Ocean Spray limited the use of the chemical in the weeks before each Thanksgiving, but, word got out one year that the chemical was found in cranberries. That caused the purchase of cranberries to plummet by 70% that year.  Needless to say, aminotrizole is no longer used in cranberry farming. However, many other chemicals are used, including chlorothalonil, carbaryl and pronamide.  When the bogs are filled with water, that water becomes contaminated with the chemicals.  Workers who go into the water get exposed to the chemicals.  The bogs are eventually drained and that chemical-laced water enters local bodies of water. All of that runoff is not regulated under the Clean Water Act or any other major environmental law.  And, in one case, the State of Wisconsin (which produces the second most cranberries in the country after Massachusetts), the "cranberry industry" received an exemption from  wetland water quality standard law.  That exemption was granted despite the fact that cranberry farms destroyed more wetlands in the state than any other activity and have negatively impacted trout fishing due to the diversion of streams for the farms' use. 

Thus, for the most part, the story of the cranberry has been one that pitted large companies against individual growers, the environment and, hence, the community. This dark side is a serious and unfortunate one, especially given the fact the history of the cranberry has its positive notes.  Cranberries were eaten by American sailors to prevent scurvy. Native Americans used the cranberries not just for food, but also for a red dye and medicines. 

This recipe draws its inspiration from the earliest days of our country, long before the use of chemicals and the degradation of our environment.  The recipe comes from the Colonial Wlliamsburg Tavern Cookbook. As noted above, Massachusetts is the leading grower of cranberries.  The Pequot Indians introduced ibimi - translated as "bitter berry" to the pilgrims. Eventually, the berries would be exported out of the New England, finding their way south to the other colonies (such as Virginia) and eventually into the taverns of Williamsburg.  Thus, this recipe for Cranberry Orange Relish.

The best part of this recipe, and, indeed, what caught my attention, was the use of Cointreau.  The colorless, orange flavored liqueur from Saint Barthelemy d'Anjou, France. I have never tasted Cointreau, let alone used it in a recipe.  What I have found after making this recipe is that the orange flavors of the Cointreau help underscore the orange in the recipe, as well as provide a richness to what is best a side.  When I served this as part of our Thanksgiving dinner, it was well received by anyone.  After all, who does not like a cranberry orange relish where the alcohol has not been cooked out.  (BTW, if you haven't figured it out already, this is not a kid friendly dish.)

Recipe from The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook
Makes 3 Cups

2 cups cranberries
1 orange, quartered, seeded
1/2 lemon seeded
1 cup sugar
1 cup pecans
1/4 cup Cointreau or other orange liqueur

In a bowl of a food processor, combine the cranberries, orange and lemon and process until coarsely chopped.  Add the sugar, pecans and Cointreau and pulse briefly to mix.  Cover and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours.  Refrigerate overnight.


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