Like any tradition, Thanksgiving evolves with every year. Televised football became a holiday staple just a few decades ago. The “friendsgiving” trend has gained popularity in recent years. And this year may usher in an age of violent family political arguments. But through it all, a few things abide. Like turkey. And cranberry sauce.
According to Ocean Spray, a cooperative of cranberry growers, more than 94 percent of Thanksgiving meals include cranberry sauce. The canned variety accounts for 74 percent of those dishes.
Here are some interesting tidbits about that red squiggly wiggly log to whip out at the Thanksgiving table — especially during those awkward moments when the conversation turns to politics.
Americans buy 5 million gallons of cranberry sauce between September and December.
If we were to line up every can of cranberry sauce that’s purchased over the holidays, it would stretch 3,385 miles, the approximate distance between Seattle and Chiappas, Mexico.
But that doesn’t mean we eat every last drop. “Most people actually use the sauce the next day in sandwiches with leftover turkey,” says Chip Matthews, director of grower relations for Lassonde Pappas and Company, a private-label beverage and cranberry sauce producer based in New Jersey.
Growing cranberries is a soggy, boggy, chilly enterprise.
Cranberries grow on vines in sandy bogs in colder northern climates such as Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. While the berries can be picked by hand and eaten as fresh fruit, the process is labor intensive.
In the 1960s, growers began “wet harvesting” cranberries. This means bogs are flooded with water. Because each berry has four tiny pockets of air, they float to the top of the water, where harvesters collect them, Matthews says.
In most Ocean Spray commercials, like this one, you see growers standing in the flooded cranberry blog.
The ridges on the cranberry log form as the sauce firms up inside the can.
At manufacturing plants, the cranberries are frozen and mixed into a sauce with boiling water. When the sauce is poured into a steel can, it thickens into a gel over a period of a few weeks. The gel retains the ridges from the inside of the can, and the shape of the can itself.
“Cranberry sauce doesn’t have any thickeners or gelling agents like pectin added to the can,” Matthews says. “Pectin is added to other jellies and jam to get them to bind together. But cranberries contain a lot of natural pectin, and that’s what makes the mixture set. ”
But why are the cans ridged in the first place?
Ridges make cans stronger, which is vital during the sterilization process, when pressure builds inside the can.
That’s not a manufacturing mistake — the cranberry sauce label is intentionally upside down.
If you look closely at a can of cranberry sauce, you’ll see that the label faces up towards the side of the can that cannot be opened with a can opener.
Online foodies have complained about this quirk. But there’s a simple explanation.
Manufacturers place the label on the can this way so that when it’s stacked on store shelves, the consumer can easily read the label. The rounded/unopenable end of the can has to be on the top, so a small air pocket can form there.
When the customer flips the can over (so the label is upside down), removes the lid, inserts a knife between the log and the can, sweeps the knife around a few times, and flips the can back over (label right side up), the air pocket allows the sauce to fall out in a perfect, log shape.
“The air needs to be there so you can get it out in one big thunk,” Matthews says.
Most Americans don’t leave the log intact on a serving dish. “I’ve found the log is too slippery and slidey,” Matthews says. “The vast majority [of people] slice it and fan out the pieces. Some cut it further into quarter-moons or half-moons.”
Regardless of which serving style you prefer, here’s hoping cranberry sauce wiggles its way onto your Thanksgiving table.