For the past several years, I have gone through late October and November obsessed with cranberries. I think it all started 15 years ago, when my partner Carol did the newsletter for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association in Massachusetts, and we were hanging out with Bruce Bickford who at that time managed Hutchins Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, then the largest certified organic farm in the state. Bruce said that he thought it was probably better to eat locally grown conventionally farmed produce, than it was to eat organic produce shipped in from California or some other far away place. That got me started trying to eat food that was in season. And at about that same time, Carol got interested in trying to always eat primarily produce that was in season, because it seemed like that’s what we were meant to do — it somehow didn’t seem right to eat citrus fruit from sunny Florida in the middle of a dark snowy February in New England.
Traditional New England cooking has always paid some attention to the seasons, at least with its use of fruits and vegetables. Cod might be good to eat any time of year, but in New England you eat apples and cider in the fall, squash and potatoes and root vegetables in early winter, parsnips in late winter, fiddleheads and dandelion greens in earliest spring, peas and new potatoes and salmon for the fourth of July, green beans and blueberries in mid-summer, crookneck squash and corn-on-the-cob in the summer, and then back to apples in the fall. And cranberries.
When cranberries first appear in the grocery store in October, somehow my whole being is ready to be obsessed by them. I’m ready for their deep red color, so red it’s almost black at times, like the leaves on certain October Red Maples, or on the Red Oaks in early November. I’m ready for the tart burst of flavor you get when you crunch them between your teeth, for I like best to eat them raw. The first time I found cranberries growing wild, I saw a spark of red at the edge of a swampy area, and I bent down to see what it was, that little bit of red caught in a tangle of leafless twigs and stems: a cranberry. I picked it and ate it right there, and it brightened up a dark November afternoon, and I ate another and another, all of the few I could find.
So I’ve taken to eating lots of cranberries mixed in granola in the morning, and even a small handful as a mid-day snack now and then. Sometimes when you eat them plain they’re so tart they kind of take you by surprise and pucker up your mouth and catch your breath, just a little, but I even like that. When the days are quickly getting shorter, and the sun keeps getting lower in the horizon, that burst of tartness is like seeing the burst of a last red tree in the setting sun on an otherwise gray leafless hillside. It gets you in your heart, and you might even gasp a little with the stark tart beauty of it.
For about two months, I crave and eat cranberries. They’re exactly the right food for this time of year, in this place. Fresh cranberries will probably disappear from the grocery store by early December, but that’s OK because by then I will be tired of them, and will have moved on to the soft boiled comforts of root vegetables: rutabaga, potato, kohlrabi, celery root, carrot.