Pucker up — it’s time to pay our respects to the cranberry

Few things say Thanksgiving better than these tart little berries.

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Craig Kingsbury did his share of cranberry picking “back in the day.” He was not a big fan. - Linsey Lee, Ralph Stewart

Cranberries deserve their due. After all, what would a Thanksgiving feast be without cranberry sauce? It also happens that this year is the 200th anniversary of commercial cranberry growing in Massachusetts, although they have been part of the Wampanoag diet for thousands of years. The tribe still maintains 20-odd bogs of various sizes, but, according to Bow Van Riper at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the bogs’ productivity diminished after the 1938 hurricane, which flooded many of them with salt water.

Cranberries are big business in Massachusetts; we’re the second largest producer in the country. And at one time cranberries were a fairly significant cash crop on the Vineyard.

Mr. Van Riper conjectures that cranberry growing probably went into decline after World War II because the growers here were running small-scale operations, and the big growers on the Cape — with lower operating costs thanks to economies of scale, and lower overhead for transportation — could undercut their prices.

The last commercial cranberry-growing operation on the Island was a bog off Lambert’s Cove Road run (since the 1940s) by Manny Duarte, but it ceased operations around 1970. Mr. Duarte converted it into Cranberry Acres Campground. Today, a small part of the bog has been restored, and it is operated by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation.

So given its role in Vineyard culture and history, we wanted to count the cranberry among our blessings this Thanksgiving and share with you two different perspectives on the noble berry. The first is from Craig Kingsbury, and it’s taken from Linsey Lee’s book, “Vineyard Voices.” Mr. Kingsbury, born in 1912, was a Tisbury selectman, naturalist, gardener, bootlegger, snapping turtle trapper, and swashbuckler extraordinaire. He speaks in a rough-hewn voice of picking cranberries, back in the day. Did he like it? “Hell no!”

We’re also including an essay from West Tisbury writer Laura Wainwright, excerpted from her book “Home Bird.” Laura has a far more romanticized vision of cranberrying, but grounded in a simple truth — they make a heck of a pie. And so with that — we give you Mr. Kingsbury.

Craig Kingsbury from a 1994 interview in “Vineyard Voices.”

And there were plenty of cranberry bogs on the Island when I was younger. There was one, two down by Lake Tashmoo, then the big one, Evan Bodfish’s on the Lambert’s Cove Road. Then the next one around was Howland’s. Chase bog’s up this way. Then the Will Look bogs. And I don’t know who owned the Goethals’ bogs before they bought the place there. Then A.C. Smith was a big four-acre bog up there on the North Shore. Then old Mr. Alley had one down by the Mill Brook in West Tisbury. And then there were big bogs down in Oak Bluffs, over at Kidder’s Cove, right next to Felix Neck. Then you had Dutton’s bog, a big bog just as you go into Edgartown. There’s big trees there now — it doesn’t take long for the trees and brush to take over. Then the Flynn bogs on the South Shore. And then there were the Gay Head bogs — they were wild, natural grounds. There were a lot of little wild bogs. And the wild bogs over in Eastville, by that Crystal Lake — the hurricanes and the salt water killed those, and they filled up with sand.

Of course they were all wild bogs till people leveled them off, and weeded and ditched them so they could drain them when they needed. You’d make ditches and dikes, and sluice gates so you could let the water out, or hold it in and direct it. That was the whole thing. When it got dry in the summer, you’d raise the water level for a couple of days, and give the plants a drink. Otherwise you’d be harvesting buckshot.

The bog men had regular help. But when it was time for picking, anybody who wanted to could come up and pick, and get so much a box. It was mostly women did the picking. I’ll tell you a funny thing, now, when it comes to fine work on the crops, the women have always been best at it. Better than men. There’d be eight or nine people out there, picking by hand with a scoop. Then they’d take the berries up to the shed. And the guy’d be there, counting your boxes for the day, and they’d pay you 50 cents a box. Then they put them in the big winnowing machine. They’d get the twigs and the bugs and the rotten ones winnowed out of them. And then they were packed in barrels for shipment.

I went picking a few times, and I weeded, and I wheeled sand in winter, and stuff like that. After the berries were picked, you’d go in and weed the bog as much as possible. Then they were flooded for the winter. You put water on them to keep them from chilling and winter kill. Spring, the water was taken off, let to dry a few days. And then go in once more to make sure you got as many weeds as possible and then that’s it. Don’t even go walking on them until picking time.

About every two or three years they were sanded. About half an inch of sand thrown over them to mat the bushes so they’d root and make new bushes instead of just these long scraggly old vines that you couldn’t handle. Then you get nice young shoots with the berry. And it also helps to keep the weeds down, and helps to hold the water. You want a short vine that you can run the picker through.

You have to sand them when there’s ice on the bog. Because how in hell are you going to get a wheelbarrow full of sand through some nice soft marshy muck? You and it are going to be up to your respective ears in muck. So you either have to use planks or ice. Otherwise, you’d go down squish. And not only that, wheeling that wheelbarrow over those lines, you’d raise hell with it. Wouldn’t encourage them a bit. For eight years, though, there was no ice. So that was another thing that screwed them up. Mild winters. You’re not going to go around and around with a wheelbarrow full of sand on that ice unless it’s at least two inches thick, or you’re going to go swimming.

I picked in Duarte’s bogs, and then I picked a section of wild stuff for my own use. Go out there and get some of the wild berries. They were very dark, almost black, and smaller, but I think they’re better. I’d pick a bushel for the winter. A lot of people did that, picking the wild bogs. But don’t go into the private bogs, you’d get your arse kicked. There was a law then, that picking bogs was the same as breaking and entering. You could get a fine up to a hundred dollars if they caught you. So that was it.

Was it fun picking? My dear lady, no, it was not, believe me. Down on your hands and knees in the goddamned muck, and the mosquitoes and flies are out to keep away the dull times. No, it was not fun! I was never interested in cranberries. I was chasing muskrats.

‘Cranberries,’ by Laura Wainwright (excerpted from her book “Home Bird.”)

The only place I know to see cranberries growing is in the tiny bog by the main holding pond at Cranberry Acres. A sweet trail circles this pond, and I often walk it, always pausing at the bog to see if the fruit has changed from white to a deep rich red.

Today in honor of Cranberry Day, always the second Tuesday in October, I went to go see the ripe berries. For the first time this season I take a jacket down from a peg in our mudroom and reluctantly put it on. It’s cool this afternoon. Piling our two old dogs into the car, I drive the few minutes down the Lambert’s Cove Road to Blackwater Pond Reservation to meet up with a friend.

We pick up the trail to Cranberry Acres alongside the Hoft Farm barn. A former road, the trail meanders through the oak and pinewoods, before ending abruptly at the main pond at Cranberry Acres. Everything is shiny in the low afternoon light. Fallen leaves hold little sparkling puddles of last night’s rain. The dogs race ahead barking, delighted by the cooler weather.

The October sun glistens off the back of turtles and the green heads of mallards dotting the pond. Following a rim of emerald green moss to the right, soon we are walking on a pair of narrow wooden boards edged on both sides by the ripe red fruit. The ground is moist and the low plants gleam. A sign posted by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, the steward of this restoration project, reminds us to look, not pick. I want to roll a smooth-skinned fruit between my fingers and rub a sprig of the tiny, shiny green leaves across my cheek. Just looking is hard, but I keep my hands in my pockets.

A peculiar abundance of animal life teems in this small pond. The ducks make a racket, and there are more turtles than we can count. Frogs create a steady stream of splashes by leaping into the water as we approach. The dappled light of the woods is cool so when we return to the open fields of the Nature Conservancy’s Hoft Farm we can’t resist the pull of full sun and decide to meander through the still green fields.

At one edge, the trail skims the rim of one of the Blackwater Ponds, which I’ve just read were holding ponds for cranberry production. I’m describing this to Margi when we both look down. We are standing in a dense patch of cranberries. There are no signs here.

In unison we drop to the ground, kneel among the vines and begin to pick. The vine’s tiny leaves are soft to the touch. Spreading them gently apart, we find fruit in abundance. Laughing with delight, I gather with both hands, grateful for the ample pockets of my warm coat. In no time they are full of luscious ripe red fruit. I keep dipping my hands into my pockets again and again to feel the smooth surface of the shiny berries slipping between my fingers. They are dry and light.

Back at my house we pool our fruits into a metal colander. There are exactly four cups, two for each of us. This is just what I need to make my favorite cranberry dessert — a cranberry walnut pie. While the oven warms I gather the ingredients and the recipe. The recipe is handwritten on the gray registration card of a bed-and-breakfast in Duluth, Iowa, where I first tasted the pie in 1998. That day it was the first course of a five-course breakfast.

It surprised me to have what I thought of as a local delicacy in Iowa. My hosts laughed at their provincial guest and told me the state of Wisconsin, just across the Mississippi River from Duluth, is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States. Massachusetts is second.

Each time I make this pie I’m amazed something so delicious can be so simple, but this time I feel a special pride because I have gathered these berries with the pleasure of my own hands. The kitchen fills with the fragrance of cooked cranberries. For a moment, I consider taking the pie to the Wampanoag potluck.

The day of harvesting cranberries from the communal bogs is for tribe members only, but the evening dancing, drumming, and eating is open to everyone on the Island. It’s tempting, but the fire is lit, and my family will be home soon. I’m glad Cranberry Day happens every year, so tonight we can savor this unexpected autumn treat right here at home.

Cranberry Walnut Pie

9-inch unbaked pie crust

2 cups whole cranberries

1 cup whole walnut halves

¼ cup brown sugar

1 egg

½ cup sugar

⅓ cup butter, melted and cooled

½ cup flour

Set the oven to 325°. Place cranberries and walnuts in pie shell. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Combine egg, sugar, butter, and flour. Beat well. Spread on top of fruit and nut mixture. Bake 45-50 minutes.