My first autumn in southeast Alaska was greeted with rain, sandhill cranes, and the pungent stench of dirty socks.
The odor permeated the forest and could easily be traced to scraggly shrubs draped in clusters of crimson berries. I couldn’t believe it when my friends gobbled handfuls of stinking berries on hikes. What could possibly induce someone to devour the highbush cranberry? Over the next few weeks of picking and canning, however, I fell in love with cranberries. Cranberry concentrate, cranberry ketchup, cranberry fruit leather, and more. For me, this humble berry became a quintessential taste and smell of Alaska.
The highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule) is not, in fact, a true cranberry. It belongs to the honeysuckle family. (The cranberry known for Thanksgiving garnish is a heath.) True to its name, however, the highbush cranberry grows into a high bush-like shrub a couple feet taller than the humans, moose, and bears that consume the berries. Preferring damp forest and stream banks, the cranberry can be found throughout most of Alaska.
Autumn in southeast Alaska does not draw the leaf peepers of New England, but this is the season when cranberries boast their beauty as well as bounty. Maple-shaped leaves turn a rosy red, and stems burdened by dense berry bunches droop toward the ground. Though leaves drop in winter, berries remain clinging to the bush, punctuating the winter landscape with scarlet pops of color and offering delicately fermented snacks for foraging birds.
Spiced Highbush Cranberry Sauce or Ketchup
- 6 cups highbush cranberries
- 1½ tsp celery salt
- 1½ tsp salt
- 1½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp pepper
- 2 cups sugar
- 1½ tsp allspice
- ½ cup water
- 1½ cups onions, chopped fine
- 1 cup cider vinegar
- 1½ tsp ground cloves
Prepare jar lids. Cook the cranberries in the water until soft, then put through a food mill or a sieve to remove seeds. Add the onions, vinegar, sugar, and spices. Boil until the mixture thickens and reaches the proper consistency. Immediately pour ketchup into hot canning jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and cover with prepared two-piece lids. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Serve this cranberry sauce with poultry or meat or use in baked beans.
Yield: 4 cups
The highbush cranberry grows from Alaska south to Oregon and east to Virginia. Indigenous people across North America harvested the berries and used the plant for a variety of purposes. The antispasmodic properties of the bark treated asthma and menstrual cramps, giving it the nickname “crampbark.” It has been used to cure whooping cough, sore throats, insomnia, and colds. People of the Northwest coast stored berries in bentwood boxes filled with water and oil, where berries sweetened and were later dipped in grease. The Dena’ina of southcentral Alaska used the stems to trim the rims of birch bark baskets.
In southeast Alaska, cranberries have historically been harvested by the Tlingit, who call them kawhueh’. In his book Tlingit Woman’s Root Basket, Louis Shotridge describes the popularity of highbush cranberries in Klukwan. During the early 1900s, the city council set aside a day each year for a highbush “picker’s stampede.” People around the region gathered for the berry derby, which Shotridge likened to the “white man’s patriotic celebration.” Each adult was allowed four two-bushel baskets, or approximately 400 pounds of berries.
“At dawn of the set day, one was roused from a happy dream by a confusion of noises,” Shotridge wrote. “There were sounds of moving things; there was laughter; shouting and yelling at some delayed person to move lively; all in chorus with the howling and yelping of many dogs that were about to plunge in to swim across the river after their masters’ canoes… On the day of the pickers’ stampede, there was no exception, young and old, rich and poor for once felt alike, and dignity and pride were for the moment forgotten. There was never a healthy being left behind in Klukwan, save the mangy dog which was always fool enough to chase after the wandering echoes of his own howls, from one deserted house to another.”
Harvesting highbush cranberries is exceptionally easy due to the dense berry clusters that can be grabbed by the fistful. An ideal hiking snack, berries are a refreshing jolt on the trail, providing a quick rush akin to smelling salts. The nutritional benefits are wide-ranging. Vitamin C, vitamin A, and dietary fibers are extremely high, but antioxidants are off the charts, several times higher than that of blueberries.
While not harvested commercially, cranberries are fairly popular among Alaskan berry aficionados. Some pickers prefer the early harvest, when berries have a sour and sometimes apple-like crunch; others wait for the first frost, when softened berries are slightly sweet. With aging comes the musty odor that some find highly repugnant, and others enjoy as the scent of autumn.
The scent of southeast
Berries are usually processed through a food mill to remove the large seeds, leaving a blood-red pulpy juice. Cranberry recipes include concentrated juice, sauces for wild game, fruit leather, jams, jellies, and cordial. They also mix well with other fruits such as raspberries, currants, rosehips, rhubarb, and apples. The flavor is tart, tangy, acidic, and reminiscent of a true cranberry.
From that first Alaskan autumn when the months were drenched in rain and echoing with the rattling call of cranes, I remain hooked on highbush cranberries. No matter where I am, a jar of cranberry juice brings back the musty scent of southeast Alaska, dropping me into rain gear and XTRATUFs, hands sticky with pulp and a bucket full of ruby berries.
Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter
- 2 quarts highbush cranberries
- 1 cup water
- 4 cups unsweetened applesauce
- 6 cups sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp cloves
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 lemon, grated rind and juice
Prepare jar lids. Boil berries and water together until berries pop and are soft. Put through a sieve or food mill to remove seeds. Reheat and add the applesauce, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Simmer until thick. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice and grated rind. Spoon apple butter into jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and cover with prepared two-piece lids. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Yield: 8 cups
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