Onset is a village in the town of Wareham, Massachusetts. Onset/Wareham boast two main industries: Tourism and Cranberries. My whole upbringing was rooted in the tourist industry, but there is a special place in my heart for cranberries. If I had been formed from the earth, the clay used to make me would have been part peat and part beach sand, just like the makeup of a cranberry bog.
Cranberries grow on short sturdy vines that are planted in bogs. The bogs may be square or oblong plots of ground, depending on how old they are, but the oldest bogs take the shape of the wetlands in which they were built. Low lying marshy places are the best base material for the vines to grow. The swamp is filled in and built up, with a solid layer of soil, covered by a mixture of peat soil and beach sand. The planted area is surrounded on all four sides with a ditch, which is surrounded by a dirt road.
An aerial view of a cranberry bog gives the illusion of a picture, even if oddly shaped. The picture would be the cranberry vines surrounded by a mat (the ditch), framed by the road or dike. Everything about the bog is practical. The ditch is part of the irrigation system that allows drainage after the bogs have been flooded. The roads provide access for the heavy equipment that is needed for harvest. **
Cranberry bogs are flooded in the winter when the temperature goes down to the twenties, to protect the vines. Frozen bogs are also great ice-skating rinks and that is how I learned much of this in this in the first place. Although in the distant past harvesting was done by hand and with the use of large cranberry scoops, now the bogs are flooded during harvest time and cranberry scoops are decorations and memories of a time long past.
In July, the cranberry bushes flower and the bogs are colored with a delicate pink blossom. I honestly don’t remember noticing cranberry bogs in the summer, probably because by July, we had long since deserted the bogs for the beaches. When the cranberries are ready to be harvested, the bogs seem to be covered in maroon velvet. For a while in the 1960’s we called the color maroon “Cranberry” and I am not sure if that was a fashion trend, or merely a local idiosyncrasy. It is the maroon velvet look of the cranberry bogs that is most prominent in my memory. It was hard to drive around our area and not pass cranberry bogs or beaches. I went to boarding school near Plymouth from 1962-1966 and once you turned off Route 24 in Middleboro to get to Kingston, it was like driving on Cranberry Road. The cranberry bogs were on the left and the Miles Standish Forest on the right. I hated boarding school, but I loved the ride to school.
Back in the day, Ocean Spray had a factory and warehouse on Route 28 in Wareham that was active. In the front of the warehouse there was a coffee shop, gift shop and bakery. I worked there my last two years in high school and discovered so much folk lore surrounding cranberries I was sure it was advertising propaganda. Not only that but everything sold in the bakery was made with cranberries, not just my beloved cranberry bread; but, pies, cookies, fudge, muffins Danish and something wonderful called “cranberry crunch.” That was nothing compared to the variety of juices and jams that were sold, all made with cranberries, in combination with other fruits. Even the waitresses and other sales staff wore cranberry colored dresses
I got my enthusiasm for cooking from my mother, but she was never one to spend much time baking. It was sampling breads at Ocean Spray that led me to try making my own. The first time I made cranberry bread, I made it with my best friend, when I was 17. We were dating two guys who were good friends and were freshmen in college. Believing the adage that “The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach” we baked up a storm together. We made hermits, chocolate chip cookies and cranberry bread, all in one day.
Baking anything from scratch can be a slow process and cranberry bread is no exception. First, you must make sure the berries are fresh. When you can drop a cranberry on a counter from a height of 12 inches, it will bounce several times if it is fresh, like a miniature basketball being dribbled by an invisible hand. If it just lands on the counter with a thud, throw it out. Of course, you are not going to attempt to dribble 2 cups of cranberries individually, but if you are in doubt about any single cranberry, try it out.
I would encourage you to cut the berries into small pieces, so they don’t just sink to the bottom of the pan. The only reasonable way to do this is with a blender, food processor or other food chopper. Even then it takes time. I have on more than one occasion attempted to cut the cranberries by hand. This is a situation only the late Lucille Ball would have attempted. First, place the lone cranberry between your thumb and forefinger. Then, using a steady hand and a sharp paring knife, attempt to quarter the berry without injuring yourself.
I don’t know anyone who has enough patience to do this through two cups of berries. I tried! I couldn’t even get through one-eighth of the berries chopped before giving up. At this point one wonders why cranberries can’t be diced like onions. But it would take a special invention I haven’t seen yet. You would need a cutting board with sides, to prevent rolling objects from escaping go onto the floor into the waiting mouth of an eager dog, or worse yet, the nose of a toddler. The cutting board would have to be large enough to accommodate a chef’s knife, and you would still need a coating of honey to hold the little berries in place.
The best way however to get the cranberries chopped but not mushed is to run them through a blender, a half cup at a time. By the time the cranberries and the walnuts are chopped you are ready to move on to the next task. In addition to bouncing and chopping the berries, there is the traditional scooping, sifting and blending. Once the flour and sugar are mixed, you add shortening and cut through the mixture with knives or use a pastry blender, as if you were making pie crust.
Once the shortening and flour are mixed, you add the liquids. We tried to speed up the process by mixing two batches at once; but discovered that bread didn’t come out as well. Perhaps it was due to our own impatience in blending the flour and shortening that the taste didn’t seem right. The bread was too heavy and floury. We decided then and there, never again to mess with perfection. Because of that, I never mix more than one loaf at a time, even if I am making two or three loaves.
Cranberries are harvested in the fall and although I can buy them dried and have them any time, I prefer fresh. Several years ago, I picked up a bag of cranberries in the grocery store and was startled and thrilled to see that they were grown and packed in Wareham. I had to have them. I went home with two bags. I suppose that is where my cranberry bread ritual began in earnest. Every year since then, I have bought at least one bag of fresh cranberries and make cranberry bread.
One loaf stays out until it has been demolished, slice by slice, while the balance goes into the freezer. I enjoy the bread one loaf at a time but when it is gone, it is gone. I don’t attempt to lay up a year’s supply because it wouldn’t be the same if I could have it whenever I wanted it. Cranberry bread is more tart than sweet, and a little bit goes a long way. It is wonderful with cream cheese, but margarine or butter will do.
My life has changed in ways I never dreamed from the vantage point of my friend’s kitchen when we were 17; even as a semi-retired country pastor my life is full and busy. Still, I will make time for making cranberry bread. It’s the process and the memories that mixing and stirring the bread stirs up in me; and the ritual has become more important miles and years from home. Usually I consider baking a solitary pursuit that requires only time, space, quiet and perhaps a dog to catch whenever may hit the floor. Taking the time to make cranberry bread is one of the things I do just for myself. It’s a sentimental journey without the pricey ticket. It is a tangible connection with memories that are as bittersweet to me as the bread itself. It is part of who I am, where I am from, and once a year, my kitchen smells like home.
** Special thanks to WHS classmate and cranberry farmer Carol L. Pierce for details.