Cooking Light: Bountiful Harvest
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Cooking Light: Bountiful Harvest

For this Wisconsin farmer, growing cranberries is a labor of love that combines family togetherness and environmental friendliness.

By Elaine Glusac

To drivers of Midwestern backroads, the common corn harvest is a drive-by event. But the cranberry haul warrants side-of-the-road stops. At harvest sunken beds of cranberries, flooded in a foot of water, turn into vast, shallow lakes trolled by partially submerged tractors with paddle-wheel “water beaters” that shake the fruits from their vines, creating crimson seas of floating berries that blaze like the autumn hardwoods surrounding them.

Central Wisconsin , best known for ITS dairy farms, celebrates the cranberry. In Wisconsin Rapids , the seat of national cranberry production in the largest cranberry growing state, the local ice creamery Herschleb’s sells cranberry supreme ice cream, cranberry orange sherbet and the cranberry sauced Bucky Badger Sundae. The Country Café nearby dishes its famed Mrs. Peterson’s cranberry pies. Cranberry fields signposted by individual fruit farmers line the rural roads east of town.   But the landscape of lakes, ponds and drenched crops resembles a rice paddy more closely than it does dairy land. Consequently a visitor’s first lesson to cranberry country is: don’t call it a farm. “Here,” says Mary Brazeau Brown, age 50, “we call it a marsh.”

Mary runs Glacial Lake Cranberries, a sprawling 6,000 acre spread, of which 330 are devoted to cranberries, with wetland and a forestry management program accounting for the balance. A third generation grower, she began working on her family’s marsh at age 16. And though she left to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then work in Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Mary eagerly returned to take the helm when her mother stepped down as president of the company in the 1980’s. Since then, amid a soft market for the fruit, she’s initiated a one-woman effort to educate the public on the beauty, health benefits and idiosyncrasy of cranberry production by opening Glacial Lakes to tourists while encouraging wetland wildlife.

“This is a small industry with less than 1000 growers in the United States . There’s a need to let people learn that the cranberry’s a native fruit, that it has a symbiotic relationship with the environment, that it’s a crop that’s been cultivated for more than 130 years,” she says.

Cranberry Discovery

Inside Glacial Lake ’s visitor center and gift shop, Mary points to a state topographical map, her finger circling the central lowlands, once a prehistoric lake created by glacier melt that eventually drained off forming the water-carved Wisconsin Dells nearby. Left with a high water table and acidic soil, the former lakebed encouraged cranberry growth. Native Americans ate the berry, dyed fabric with it and, in poultices, applied it to poison arrow wounds.

Though early 19th century settlers cultivated the fruit, it wasn’t until the health food boom of the late 70’s that cranberries — primarily in the form of juice — entered national consciousness on days other than Thanksgiving. Health claims on behalf of the cranberry range from warding off urinary tract infections to producing antioxidants and the sort of polyphenols and flavenoids that prevent cancer.

But the history and nutritional benefits are only two aspects of the cranberry education program Mary’s undertaken. Because cranberry growth relies on water – beds are flooded at harvest to make collection easier and to protect them from spring and fall frosts – 10 acres of wetland support each acre that’s cultivated. In Mary’s marsh, grassy, elevated dikes separate low, rectangular beds bordered by enormous reservoirs that draw sand hill cranes, great blue herons, blue winged teal, and trumpeter swan among other wildlife.

For the last few years she’s taken visitors for drives over the dikes, beside the beds and along the wetlands, explaining how the perennial fruit grows. Interest peaks in September and October, during harvest, when water held in reservoirs floods the fields. But the curious come in summer too when the vines bloom in small pink flowers and honeybees from 500 hives set to pollinating them. Mary even rents a 1930’s-built fieldstone foreman’s cottage on the property to nature-loving tourists.

“Once they’ve had the tour people say it makes them appreciate a glass of juice so much more,” she says, munching on the housemade cranberry trail mix sold in the shop, along with socks, stationary — you-name-it –emblazoned with cranberries.

Mary’s husband Philip, who works part-time on the marsh, points to the prosperity of California vineyards, in part bolstered by tourism, as a model. It’s a boost needed in the cranberry trade. After the boom of the 80’s and 90’s, the industry now overproduces and the cost of production exceeds the market price for fruit.

“Sharing the property with other people both provides extra income and helps take my mind off the state of the industry,” says Mary. “It’s a wonderful lifestyle. When times are good it’s a wonderful lifestyle. When times are bad it’s still a wonderful lifestyle.”

A Sense of Place

It’s a lifestyle that begins about 6:00 each morning, when Mary walks a brisk one to two miles (or, in winter, cross-country skis them) on the dikes with the family’s yellow Labrador , Holly. “I walk to collect my thoughts and to appreciate what we have here,” she says. “The marsh is conducive to it. Exercise isn’t just for the body but for the mind.”

Later, patrolling the marsh with two hefty bird encyclopedias on the dash of her Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mary identifies a flock of rare black terns, which she’ll later report to state biologists. This year she hopes for the return of the endangered whooping crane. Two thousand Glacial Lake acres are enlisted in a state forestry program as a wildlife preserve and, adds Mary, “in fall the ducks know it.” A family of timber wolves, reintroduced and monitored by radio collar, den on the marsh. And a black bear recently raided seeds from the birdfeeders in Mary’s forest-backed yard.

“There’s a bigger picture here. It’s not just the cranberries. It’s about the animals,” says Mary. “When we’re doing something right for wildlife, we’re doing something right for us.”

Besides Philip, Mary’s “us” includes 11-year old daughter Alison and 19-year old son Stephen who works the marsh when he’s home from college. She considers motherhood her priority, and country life, even a hard-working country life, encourages family time. During the summer months the family beaches beside a swimming hole created amid the cranberry beds. At harvest time, everyone pitches in to help, including Alison who likes to pick the ripe berries and eat them raw.

The family gathers at mealtime too. As a grower of food, Mary believes in consuming it with some ceremony. She insists the entire family eat together by candlelight at least three times a week, a feat in a family with two kids seven years apart in age. The Browns favor fish, chicken and pork, most often preparing them on the patio grill.

After a dinner of pork tenderloin with fresh cranberries and caesar salad, Mary washes dishes opposite a cartoon clipping on the wall that reads: “When you come home to this every night where do you vacation?” Mary quotes it frequently. “Here is everything I love: wilderness, water, the change of seasons,” she says. “I’m where I want to be.”

Bio: Freelance writer Elaine Glusac writes about food and travel for Shape, National Geographic Traveler, American Way , and Fodor’s guidebooks. She lives in Chicago

Cranberry Chutney

Slivered almonds add crunch to Mary’s favorite chutney, which she serves with shrimp or chicken.

4 cups fresh cranberries
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup raisins
1 cup water
½ cup slivered almonds, toasted
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated onion
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Combine all of the ingredients in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer the chutney for 35 minutes or until thickened. Yield: 3½ cups (serving size ¼ cup).