Written by Susan Playfair
Review By Dee Levanti
As the local food movement grows and we renew our relationship with agriculture, we are becoming more curious and learning more about farming and the origins of our food. We also are getting to know our farmers and grocers in new ways as we have conversations about where food comes from and how it’s grown. With a crop like the cranberry, the learning process can be difficult because we don’t often interface with a cranberry grower. The opportunity to do so lies in the pages of Susan Playfair’s book, America’s Founding Fruit.
The cranberry, or Vaccinium macrocarpon, is the quintessential New England fruit. It is a well-known food, an indispensible sauce for Thanksgiving Dinner, a medicinal juice, and a dried snack or topping. Yet in truth, most of us know very little about the cranberry: the challenges of cultivation, models of distribution, historical and cultural significance, or its diverse health benefits. All these answers can be found in Playfair’s homage to the cranberry.
“America’s Founding Fruit” was meticulously researched not only on multiple cranberry bogs across the country, but also in the pages of historical documents and letters, with queries to breeders, medical and scientific researchers, as well as discussions with those directly involved in cranberry processing and distribution. She beautifully describes the berry from all angles, transporting the reader along with her as she travels the country to discover more about this essential fruit.
Taking the time to review the history of the cranberry, Playfair describes the plant’s native coastal swamp habitat, from when it was a staple in the diet of Native Americans. Sassamanesh, as the Wampanoag and Aquinnahs called the berry, was essential for maintaining good health through the long winters when people relied on stored food. Cranberries were used medicinally, in a poultice for wounds, and also to treat tumors or “cancers.”
Throughout America’s Founding Fruit, personal stories of cranberry growers in multiple regions highlight the evolution of the cranberry industry from a hyper-local food to a fruit of worldwide significance. Playfair enlightens the reader about the harvesting techniques, from crawling with wooden hand scoops to high-tech drainage and helicopters, and deftly explains the labor shift from children and immigrants of largely Italian, Finnish, and Cape Verdean background, to those of mostly Cambodian and Southeast Asian background today.
In talking with the growers across the country, Playfair discovers similar challenges among them regarding insects, weather, labor, market access, and unstable pricing (growers received a higher price for their berries in the 1980’s than they do today). She educates us on the range of growing techniques and tools, including bog design, organic practices, and variety breeding. Growers share their unique marketing efforts, leading us through the history of the Ocean Spray Co-Op, the Decas Cranberry Products company, and the efforts of individual growers like Dom Fernandes (Fresh Meadows Farm, Carver MA) and Keith Mann (Orcranics, Buzzard’s Bay, MA) who direct-market and take charge of their own sales.
Playfair digs deeper within the book when she confronts the subject of climate change, probing growers’ memories of weather patterns in years past. Visiting the UMass Cranberry Experiment Station in Wareham, she analyzes several years of recorded data on the plant’s flowering times. Cranberries, like most fruits, are very vulnerable to destabilized climate patterns as unseasonable temperature patterns affect flowering, insect pollination, and fruit set. In a very accessible yet scientific manner, she gives us hope and explores the answers to the question she herself poses: “So what can be done to save America’s founding fruit from becoming another casualty of global warming?”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading America’s Founding Fruit and learning more about how the cranberry gets from the bog to my table. As a farmer, I deeply appreciate the depth of research on the cranberry crop. Growers are portrayed with respect and gratitude. With their hard work and determination, the knowledge they possess, and their ability to change and adapt in a modern world, the cranberry growers have all they need to continue producing the same outstanding fruit that has kept centuries of generations healthy.
Dee Levanti enjoys growing, sourcing, and writing about delicious food in the spirit of rebuilding a strong food system which is accessible to consumers and producers both large and small.