The History Behind Why We Eat Cranberry Sauce On Thanksgiving

turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce
turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce - Debbismirnoff/Getty Images

America has a good number of unique holidays -- the Fourth of July, Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day -- but there's probably no American holiday more iconic than Thanksgiving. It's a day when we stuff ourselves full of food and watch football until we pass out from tryptophan overload, and what could be more American than that? What food, too! Roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie -- and cranberry sauce. Even if some people mess up and make their cranberry sauce too runny, it's still an integral part of the Thanksgiving meal.

But how in the world did we even start eating cranberry sauce to begin with? Turkey makes sense; that's a pretty iconic American protein (even if the thing about Ben Franklin suggesting it be the national bird is largely made up). But cranberry sauce? It turns out that cranberries have a long history in Native American cuisine, even if the first Thanksgiving almost certainly didn't feature cranberry sauce.

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Cranberries (But Not Cranberry Sauce) Were Probably Eaten At The First Thanksgiving

pot of cranberry sauce with rosemary
pot of cranberry sauce with rosemary - Funwithfood/Getty Images

A lot of things must have been different about that first Thanksgiving. The menu included not just turkey but waterfowl and venison. Corn was almost certainly present as wash shellfish; remember, these were Wampanoag Native Americans of the coastal Massachusetts area. It seems a pretty safe bet lobster was also part of the meal. Cranberry sauce almost certainly wasn't, though; it requires a ton of sugar to make, and sugar was not readily available then.

However, it's entirely possible they ate cranberries -- just not in the form of cranberry sauce. Pemmican is a classic Native American dish made from dried meat and cranberries; it's basically an indigenous energy bar. So it's likely pemmican (and thus cranberries) was present -- though it's worth noting there are no definitive records that corroborate this.

So that explains how cranberries became involved in the Thanksgiving meal. But how did cranberry sauce become part of it?

Cranberry Sauce Was Associated With Thanksgiving By The 19th Century

jar of cranberry sauce
jar of cranberry sauce - LN team/Shutterstock

In all likelihood, the answer is that once it was available, Europeans probably just took to cranberry sauce more than something like pemmican. Though canned cranberry sauce didn't come into existence until 1912 due to an Ocean Spray business venture, modern cranberry sauce definitely existed before then. The earliest recipes resembling cranberry sauce (stewing berries in water and sugar) date to the 1630s. However, it wasn't until the release of Amelia Simmons' cookbook "American Cookery" in 1796 that the first official recipe for cranberry sauce appeared on a page.

Things get a little murky from here, but we know cranberries were long considered an integral part of the Thanksgiving meal; that's not just a modern thing. In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be part of soldiers' Thanksgiving meal. It seems unlikely he simply invented that out of whole cloth, so the far better explanation is he was responding to an already-established trend.

However cranberries and cranberry sauce were first introduced to the Thanksgiving meal, they couldn't have taken long to become mandatory. Whoever is originally responsible, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.