Holiday time is cranberry time.

Secure can opener onto can. Twist, twist, twist. Upend can to loosen contents. Nothing. Shake, shake, shake. Plop.

There! The cranberry, in very saucy form, makes its holiday appearance. But what is it about this red, quivering mass, still so perfectly can-shaped? Why the cranberry? Why does it become so much more prevalent at this time of the year?

Cranberries are a fall fruit. Harvesting begins shortly after Labor Day and continues until the end of October. Thus, fresh cranberries are available just in time for the holidays.

In the early days, cranberries were handpicked. Now, there are two common methods for harvesting: wet-picked and dry-picked. Most cranberries are wet-picked, which requires that the cranberry bogs be flooded so that a water reel, known to farmers as an egg beater, can move through the bogs, beating the water to shake the ripe berries off the vine. The berries, which contain little air pockets, float to the top and can easily be herded onto a conveyor belt. Cranberries harvested this way are used to make sauces, juices, jams, and jellies. Only a small amount of cranberries gets dry-picked, using a machine that rotates through the vines to collect the berries. These berries -- described as tasting both bitter and sour -- are sold in stores as fresh fruit.

The cranberry has also been called the bearberry and the bounce-berry. It follows then that cranes like to eat them and bears do too. (For the record, cranberries actually do bounce. Bouncing them on the floor is a way to check their ripeness and freshness. If they bounce, they are good to go.) Cranes build their nests in cranberry bogs, but it is also believed that the berry's name may stem from the fruit's flowers, which dip down and resemble the head of a crane. The first recorded use of the word "cranberry" was in a letter written in 1647 by a missionary named John Eliot.

The cranberry is one of only three commercially important fruits that originated in North America. (The blueberry and the Concord grape are the other two.) Ironically, however, cranberry sauce is one of the most dreaded side dishes to the Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas ham.

It is unclear if cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, because there is no complete record of the foods that were shared. Some say cranberry sauce was widely introduced by General Ulysses S. Grant, who ordered it served to Union soldiers during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864. The first commercially canned cranberry sauce was available in 1912, when the Cape Cod Cranberry Company introduced its Ocean Spray Cape Cod Cranberry Sauce to the market. The company later merged with other cranberry growers to become Ocean-Spray Corporation.

Although the thought of yet another year at grandma's house with canned cranberry sauce may give some people the chills, there are many other, truly delicious ways to include cranberries in a holiday meal (whole cookbooks about cranberries have been written) -- cranberry orange relish, cranberry eggnog tart, cranberry ginger chutney, cranberry winter pudding, cranberry vodka punch, and "pemmican." Pemmican is a cake that was made by Native Americans as a food reserve and source of protein and vitamins during the cold winter months. It consisted of fat, dried deer, bear, or moose meat, and fresh cranberries, which were pounded together and then dried.

Come to think of it, canned cranberry sauce doesn't sound too bad after all. •

by Simone Barden


by Sonia Alexander Hill

Linda Waller, former owner of Puck's near Overton Square, has opened her newest restaurant, the Azalea Grill, in a residential neighborhood near the University of Memphis.

"We [had] a soft opening," says Waller. "After we get the kinks worked out, we may have a grand-opening event January 1st."

She and partner Jimmy Skefos named the restaurant after the flowering shrubs that were blooming when they first looked at the property, which is located at 786 Echles. They spent many hours remodeling the building, which got its start as a mom-and-pop grocery and has been a number of restaurants over the years. Waller added a piano bar with a baby grand for nightly entertainment.

"It's a magical building," says Waller. "It's such a hidden treasure in this little neighborhood."

Waller describes the menu as "casual American dining with French influences" and says the grilled rack of lamb with roasted garlic and plum sauce was a popular dish among guests at the restaurant's opening on November 16th. "The other thing everyone loved was pistachio-crusted sea bass with a sour cherry and Zinfandel glaze," she says. "We also have free-range chicken and vegetarian specials. For dessert, vanilla cheesecake is one of my favorites with strawberry poached in Riesling and rosewater or chocolate whiskey cake with fresh whipped cream."

In addition to owning Puck's, Waller, who trained at the New York Restaurant School, also has worked at Café Society and Mantia's.

"I'm a third-generation chef," says Waller, whose grandfather was the executive chef for the Saddle, a restaurant located in the Admiral Benbow Inn in Memphis. "I've been doing this for 30 years. I've worked everywhere."

The Azalea Grill is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. For more information, call 452-0022.

NEW YORK MIXOLOGIST Nick Mautone, au-thor of the newly released book Raising the Bar: Better Drinks, Better Entertaining, will tap the keg at Boscos' Monday-night Happy Hour Club on November 29th.

Mautone is the resident mixologist at New York's Gramercy Tavern and owns his own restaurant, Trina, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"He will tap the keg at 5:30 p.m. and give a brief demonstration with a few drinks from the book," says Melody Meyer of Artisan, the book's publisher. "Nick is a foodie and a bartender, so he'll be answering questions about holiday entertaining."

In Raising the Bar, Mautone shares his favorite recipes and tips for stocking a home bar and entertaining.

The free event is presented by Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Boscos is located at 2120 Madison. For more information, call 432-2222.

Get in the holiday spirit with Christmas in Collierville December 3rd-6th. Festivities at the town's historic square kick off Friday with a parade at 7 p.m. Saturday is filled with shopping, entertainment, horse-drawn carriage rides, and, of course, a visit from St. Nick. New attractions this year include an ice-skating rink, a reading of the book The Polar Express aboard the square's vintage train car, and an outdoor screening of It's a Wonderful Life. The movie, along with hot dogs, s'mores, and hot chocolate, will be served free in Confederate Park.

"We set up the movie screen on the gazebo, so everyone can bring lawn chairs and blankets," said Amy Sax, executive assistant for Main Street Collierville. "There is no fee, but we're asking people to bring nonperishable food items for the Collierville Food Pantry, which serves people in need. During the holidays, it's especially important to help keep that stocked."

The weekend culminates with "A Dickens Dinner" at Seasons at the White Church on Sunday and Monday evening. Guests can step back in time and enjoy a dramatic reading between courses of roasted turkey and flaming Christmas pudding. The Collierville restaurant will feature a quiet holiday setting, complete with servers dressed in Victorian clothes. The five-course menu will feature recipes passed down through the Dickens family and adapted by chefs Sam Long and Brian Harwell.

Tickets are $40 per person. For reservations, call 853-1666.

Cakes '•' Things, once located in the Midtown Co-Op, has a new home at Valenza Pasta, 1329 Madison.

Business partners and longtime friends Barry Huddleston and Chris Turney, along with wedding coordinator Johnny Hardaway, primarily design wedding cakes. However, the shop also features fresh-baked pies, cheesecakes, cookies, and holiday pastries. •

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