- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

The endearing jiggle, those alarming ridges, that tinny taste. Love it or hate it, canned cranberry sauce is now 75 years old, deemed a “Thanksgiving icon” by its maker and about to stain nine out of 10 tablecloths across the nation come Thursday.

Even in the age of chichi foods and fusion cookery, it’s still the no-frills “strained and sweetened cranberry log” that ends up cozy with the turkey on holiday plates, according to Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray.

The company created the gelatinous side dish in 1930 — while the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, astronomers were discovering the planet Pluto, and the first home TV set was demonstrated. It reports that 91 percent of us will serve the ruby jelly in 48 hours — more than 5 million gallons worth.

About 200 berries go into each one of those cans, the company also notes.

And whether they like it or not, U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq will get a full complement of cranberry sauce on their plates this year. The Defense Logistics Agency reported yesterday that it has sent 4,310 cans — or more than $26,000 worth of the red stuff — to the Gulf region with other traditional fare.

Cranberry sauce itself has some visceral history as well.

Unsweetened cranberries — a plant native to America — were indeed part of the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621, even according to those historians who categorize the dinner as a “myth” that did not transpire on the scale found in the popular imagination.

A form of the sauce got a big boost during the Civil War.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered it served to Union troops for their Thanksgiving dinner during the siege of Petersburg, staged in the Virginia town for almost 10 months between 1864 and 1865. According to historic accounts, the sauce was meant to prevent scurvy and lift spirits during an assault that eventually precipitated Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the end of the war.

These days, the sauce has inspired intense rivalries between those loyal to the red jelly log they remember at Grandma’s table and adventurous cooks who concoct their own from fresh berries. Ohio State University’s alumni club recently polled its members to find out whether they served “namby-pamby berry-shaped sauce” or “sauce shaped like the can (as God intended).”

Eighty percent of them went for the can. Only “French wussies” went for real berries, one respondent said.

The berries themselves have been heralded in recent years as a major source of antioxidants and a possible panacea for ulcers, cancers, heart disease, urinary tract infections and other ailments.

But the sauce is the stuff of legend in some circles.

“We all hate cranberry sauce. The only people who like cranberry sauce are named ‘Estelle.’” essayist Joe Bob Briggs once noted. “Eleven months out of the year we don’t even think about cranberry sauce. And then what happens? Jigglin’ purple igloos sloshed on your plate. People see that, they just go crazy, start killin’ the in-laws.”

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