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Wisconsin's Cranberry (or Craneberry) Heritage

Pen Waggener

Cranberries are one of the only truly traditional foods present at the Thanksgiving table. While a full-turkey likely wouldn't have been on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, cranberries were a staple part of early American diets. 

Lake Effect food contributor, Kyle Cherek, says the cranberry is one of the only fruits native to North America. The tiny fruit was originally cultivated by Native American tribes in bogs in the Northeast, but eventually made its way to Wisconsin. 

"They're foreign to Wisconsin just as corn, which came out of mesoamerica, is foreign to the Midwest," says Cherek. Now the state produces more than 60 percent of the annual crop in the U.S. 

"The name cranberry came from the Germans and the Dutch that came over... because the flower looks like a crane."

Cranberries have become a ubiquitous part of any Thanksgiving meal, but Cherek says that hasn't always been the case. While the fruit would have been present at the first Thanksgiving, it likely would have been eaten not as a sauce or jelly, but as part of pemmican. And although the fruit originated with Native American peoples, the word "cranberry" came from European settlers, and actually refers to the flowers of the cranberry bush. 

"The name cranberry came from the Germans and the Dutch that came over... because the flower looks like a crane," says Cherek. "It's got this bill and then this head shape that looks exactly like a crane. So they're really not 'cranberries' they're 'craneberries.' We've been saying it wrong all these years." 

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.