Canned cranberry sauce, explained

Let us give thanks for a controversial American tradition.

On Thanksgiving dinner tables across America, chances are there’ll be platters of perfect, glistening garnet rounds, the ridges from the can still visible along their perfect, glistening garnet sides.

This is jellied cranberry sauce. It is an American tradition. Like so many American traditions, including Thanksgiving itself, its existence is controversial. It is a feat of engineering. It is a culinary wonder. It is an abomination, some say, slandering the cranberry’s good name.

It is also confusing, a substance that defies easy categorization. What is this gelatinous, artificially sweetened tube, jiggling out of the can, still can-shaped? And why, given its relative triviality — it is eaten a handful of times a year, at most, and costs less than $1.50 — does it inspire such strong feelings, uniting enemies and dividing friends?

What is jellied cranberry sauce, and is it sauce?

No. Also yes. By any standard definition of the category, jellied cranberry sauce would not qualify as “sauce.” A sauce, according to What’s Cooking America, the nation’s “most trusted culinary resource since 1997” (according to itself), is a “liquid or semi-liquid [food] devised to make other foods look, smell, and taste better, and hence be more easily digested and more beneficial.” Wikipedia, my personal most trusted culinary resource, agrees that “sauces are not normally consumed by themselves,” and that a liquid component is essential.

Jellied cranberry sauce — that majestic, jiggling store-bought log — does not meet these criteria: Clearly, it is a solid. In fact, one of its primary features is that it does not bleed, unwanted, into other elements of a meal. This is because it is a solid, which, by crowdsourced definition, disqualifies it from true sauce-hood, while also differentiating it from its purer sibling: whole cranberry sauce.

Whole cranberry sauce is what you’d most likely make, were you to follow the recipe on the back of a bag of whole cranberries, though it can also be purchased in a can. Unlike the jiggling cranberry towers, the whole-berry version can be spooned out, sauce-like, over other elements of the meal. It is the whole-berry version that is “cranberry sauce.” The jellied cylinder qualifies as sauce only by relation, like a legacy applicant at Yale.

Yet it is beloved — not as a sauce, exactly, but as a food group of its own. Indeed, it is so different from the whole-berry version that many Thanksgiving hosts serve both, in two separate dishes, side by side. And deep down, they are not so different after all: Whole cranberry sauce indeed involves whole berries. Jellied cranberry sauce goes through much the same process, but it is heavily strained, removing elements of nature — skin, seeds — that would impede its perfect silken texture.

Where did it come from?

The history of cranberry sauce — in general, not jellied — goes back to indigenous people, who gathered the wild berries, using them for all sorts of things: textile dyes, medicines, cooking. According to the Washington Post, a report from the colonies, circa 1672, reported that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat,” though it did not come into fashion as a turkey-specific accompaniment until more than 100 years later.

In Amelia Simmons’s 1796 tome, American Cookery, she suggests serving roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry sauce.” (As an alternative, the Post notes, she proposed pickled mangoes.) But it did not become a requirement of Thanksgiving dinners until General Ulysses S. Grant served it, alongside designated Thanksgiving turkey, to Union soldiers during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.

“That sort of solidifies its place as part of Thanksgiving nationally,” Kellyanne Dignan, director of global affairs for Ocean Spray, tells me. Cranberries themselves, she points out, only grow in five states, even now: Wisconsin grows the most, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington state. (Also, British Columbia and Quebec.)

All of that is only context for what happened less than 50 years later: the introduction of canned jellied cranberry sauce, a testament to the possibilities of American ingenuity.

Cranberries are delicate fruits. They are “picky when it comes to growing conditions,” explains K. Annabelle Smith at Smithsonian.com.Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the US as an option for cranberry farming.” This reality put a cap on possibilities of the cranberry market: There are only so many cold-weather bogs to go around.

Then in the very early 1910s, Marcus Urann, a lawyer who abandoned his first career to buy a cranberry bog — and would go on to become one of the founders of what would become Ocean Spray — began canning the stuff as a way to sell the seasonal berry year-round. The cranberry harvest lasts six weeks, Robert Cox, a co-author of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table, told Smithsonian. “Before canning technology, the product had to be consumed immediately and the rest of the year there was almost no market.” Then suddenly, there was.

The jellied log became available nationwide in 1941. Thanksgiving history was forever changed. Ocean Spray, currently the world’s largest grower of cranberries, sells roughly 80 percent of its jellied sauce for the year Thanksgiving week. (There are also miniature peaks around Christmas, Easter, and the Super Bowl, thanks to a cult recipe for “Ultimate Party Meatballs.”)

Americans love buying jellied cranberry sauce

Ocean Spray makes 70 million cans of jellied cranberry sauce, which Dignan observes amounts to one for every American family. It is wildly more popular than canned whole-berry sauce; three cans of jellied are sold for every one can of whole-berry. Every jellied can requires 220 cranberries.

“What’s interesting about cranberry sauce is that three-quarters of Americans use store-bought sauce for their Thanksgiving,” Dignan muses. “It really is the only thing on the table that the majority of people don’t just buy but want to buy.”

Making your own cranberry sauce is much easier than roasting your own turkey, or making your own stuffing, or baking your own pie. It is arguably even easier than throwing together your own salad, which is apparently how people celebrate, healthfully, on the West Coast. It takes 15 minutes, some sugar, and a saucepan. Yet it is our favorite thing to buy.

Here is Chris Cillizza of CNN, weighing in with passion:

Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post agrees, as does, apparently, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Nowhere is this is truer than in the southeastern United States, where they grow no cranberries at all. The biggest state for canned cranberry sauce consumption is Georgia, and while she cannot exactly explain this, it has, Dignan says, always been true.

In an age where processed food is in decline, one might imagine that canned cranberry sauce would be struggling. But according to Dignan, it is not. Seventy-six percent of people buy the stuff. “I wouldn’t say cranberry sauce is something that’s expanding in terms of our portfolio — we’re not seeing tons of year over year growth,” she says, but sales are “amazingly steady.”

“I think there’s a nostalgia to it,” she suggests. “There’s something about taking it out of the can and sort of that noise it makes and slicing it and it’s very uniquely American.” They don’t even sell canned cranberry sauce overseas, she says; they package it like a spread, in glass jars.

The appeal is in its timelessness. “There’s something about the fact that it hasn’t changed much. Even if someone doesn’t eat anything out of a can the whole rest of the year, I think, for some reason, cranberry sauce really speaks to them,” she says. She is not alone in her assessment of the non-sauce sauce’s appeal.

“How can you beat the tangy, sweet flavor of store-bought cranberry sauce,” said one taste tester at Bon Appétit. At Fortune, Clifton Leaf vigorously defended the “jiggly, wiggly mold of tartness.” The jellied slices, he wrote, go “down easy, like a slippery jam, potent with berry flavor and a whiff of history.”

Are there dissenters? Of course. As there should be. This is America. “The wobbly crimson substance added nothing to my Thanksgiving enjoyment, unlike my mother’s lemon-zested, multi-spiced version,” lamented Gwen Ihnat at the Takeout. “Once you take the time to make a fresh cranberry or lingonberry jam in its place, you’ll never go back,” Jim Stein, executive chef at McCrady’s, told Food & Wine, proposing instead a version with “fresh lingonberries cooked down in a little bit of sugar, cinnamon, star anise, and orange juice/zest.” (Dissenters love to zest.)

The exquisite beauty of the great jellied cranberry debate is that unlike many divisions — between families, between nations — it does not matter. Celebrate your freedom. Dance like no one’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt; eat your cranberries in the gelatinous form of your choice.