It’s no secret that much of the fare we enjoy at Thanksgiving was missing from the Pilgrims’ table. In fact, many of our favorite holiday foodstuffs were absent from Plymouth colony altogether; sweet potatoes, native to Peru, had not yet made their way north, and brussels sprouts, hailing from Belgium, weren’t widely cultivated in the United States until a century ago.
Cranberries, on the other hand, were abundant.
One of the few fruits indigenous to North America, cranberries were regularly touted for their medicinal value. It wasn’t long before the Pilgrims learned that the tart, red berries, rich in vitamin C, were particularly effective at fighting scurvy, and they remained a staple food source for American sailors well into the nineteenth century.
Discovered, too, was that cranberries, when boiled and sweetened, were delicious served alongside roasted meats. In a journal entry dated April 8, 1767, John Adams fondly recalls dining on roasted wild goose and stewed cranberry sauce at the home of his associate, Dr. Tufts. Nearly a century later, following a civilian effort to provide the Union troops with a holiday meal in November 1864, it is said that General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that the “Boys in Blue” be served not only poultry, pies and puddings, but also a helping of cranberry sauce.
This sauce, of course, was a far cry from the canned jelly so often passed over at the annual spread—that wasn’t invented until 1912. It was more akin to a relish, if you will, and a modern interpretation, simmered with sugar, orange and Bourbon, will not disappoint.
In a saucepan set over medium-low heat, combine a 12-ounce package (about four cups) of fresh or frozen cranberries, a half cup each of white and brown sugars, the zest and juice of one orange and a quarter cup of Bourbon. Add in a half cup of water and a cinnamon stick, and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the cranberries have begun to pop and the liquid has thickened slightly. Remove from the heat, and set aside.
The cranberry sauce will continue to thicken as it cools, and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or frozen for use throughout your holiday season—at those other feasts, when cranberry sauce is also established as a delicious, homegrown accompaniment.