If I gave you a dish of dark sweet cherries one, of strawberries, and one of cranberries, which one would you eat last? I realize thatís a foolish question, but it gets right to the heart of the matter. In the last generation, cranberries have achieved unprecedented popularity in America. But they donít taste any better than they ever did. Why is this?
Once in the not too distant past, Americans chose this harvest of the Massachusetts bogs only as part of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps that tradition began out of near starvation at Plymouth Rock, or with the Native American equivalent of a childish prank perpetrated on the gullible immigrants. "Look at them Pilgrims pucker!"
In my youth the typical cranberry sauce had more sugar than berry, like my favorite, the canned red jelly that you shoved out onto a plate and sliced into quivering, tooth-rotting circles. Nowadays cranberry sauce is a gourmet item prepared with ginger, orange peel, quinces, mangos, and rare spices. Why you can even find fresh cranberries, something I never believed existed in the 50s, in most grocery stores. Whatís more remarkable is that people buy them, cook 'em up until they explode, boil 'em down to a slimy goop, and expect normal folks to eat 'em. It doesnít seem to matter that one bite of cranberries has the same effect on the palette as kerosene, ruining your taste buds for the succulent roasted turkey, the delicate scalloped oysters, and the savory cornbread stuffing with giblet gravy -- not to mention the 25 dollar bottle of buttery Sonoma Chardonnay.
Yet Americans consume cranberries year round. They put 'em in muffins, cakes, and cookies. And they drink the juice, especially when itís mixed with grape, apple, raspberry or other juices, which are generally potable. They even believe that cranberry juice promotes urinary health. So does water. Cranberries are similar to the German preiselbeeren, but German cooks have the good sense not to use them for food; theyíre condiments to be used sparingly if at all.
What we have here is an example of good old American advertising prowess. The cranberry barons of New England desired to sell their crop more than two months a year. So, they hired a few Wharton and Harvard MBAís to develop a concept, pour it in a glass, and see if anyone bothered to flush it through their kidneys. Cranberry juice became a red sparkling cranberry juice cocktail. Instead of tasting sour, bitter, or just gosh awful, it was tangy! Something to wake up your taste buds, make you say, "Wow!" grin like a ninny, and do strange dances. You just had to try the stuff. It was almost un-American not to. It was pure marketing genius.
So, what does the cranberry saga tell us about ourselves, other than that we are susceptible to a Madison Avenue snow job? Perhaps the lesson is that, when it comes to advertising or cranberries, there's no accounting for taste.