I've been eating lots of cranberries lately. It's the season for them, and they are so delicious. They go with everything. Add to this the many stories I've seen on TV this week about the Kennedy family and their love of Cape Cod, sailing, and lighthouses. Naturally, these things have me thinking about Cape Cod lighthouses. But first, the cranberries--
Cape Cod is known for its cranberry bogs. The fruits ripen in autumn and the bogs are flooded to make the ripe berries float. Today, the berries are harvested in a mechanized way, but in the past they were harvested using a hand-held cranberry scoop. Below is a scoop I found on eBay. These often go for big money; they[re lovely antiques. A visit to the Ocean Spray visitor center in Plymouth is fun this time of year, to sample all the cranberry juices and learn how the berries are grown and harvested. I took my kids there in the late 1980s and, if one could get drunk on cranberry juice, they did!
I'll be making cranberry bread next week for Thanksgiving. The recipe I use is an old one, handed down through several generations. But it's not from my family cookbook. A woman (whose name I failed to record) handed it to me in 1995 when I attended a lighthouse festival on Cape Cod. She came by my book table, bought some signed books, and gave me a small loaf of her cranberry bread wrapped in cellophane and tied with a red ribbon. It was so good I asked for the recipe. She wrote it down and told me the recipe was from her great aunt who had lived on several Cape Cod lighthouses, including Nobska Light.
Cape Cod is a place of rich maritime history and lore. This includes the cape's many lighthouses. They're barely ten miles a part and stand on boath sides of the cape--the notorious "Backside" and the inside facing Cape Cod Bay. There are some unique ones, such as the Three Sisters at Nauset, a set of tiny triple light towers that once guided inshore vessels along the "Backside" of Cape Cod. There were twin lighthouses at Chatham years ago too, at the elbow of the cape. One of the twins was moved to Nauset in the 1920s and then moved again father inland in the 1990s when the cliff eroded away. There are smaller sentinels at the north end where the cape curves northwest like a beckoning finger and becomes a thin strand of tawny, fine sand. Highland Light at Truro is grand and lofty and storied. It has also been moved back from the eroded cliffs. Monomy Light--spidery legged and rusty--sits at the southern tip of the long spit that extends south from the cape, marking a great hazard for ships. And there are more...
Henry David Thoreau visited many of these lighthouses on his walk up the cape in the mid-nineteenth century. He spent an evening with the Highland Lighthouse keeper and wrote at length about it in Cape Cod. Lighthouse author and historian Edward Rowe Snow followed in Thoreau's footsteps a century later, visiting those same lighthouses and eventually detailing them in his Lighthouses of New England. Snow went on to write many lighthouse books and take over the role of Flying Santa over the Lighthouses.
Nobska Lighthouse, of cranberry bread fame, stands watch on the southern part of the cape near Woods Hole. I've been there many times, in various seasons, and the view of the lighthouse on its small hill is always stunning. It's a cast-iron tower with a pretty shake shingle keeper's house. I've heard it's the residence for the officer-in-charge of the Woods Hole Coast Guard Station. It's high-end historic housing!
So, I'm thinking of cranberries today and the gift of that wonderful, historic recipe from a family of Cape Cod lightkeepers. Possibly, they harvested the berries themselves, or at the very least a neighbor brought them a gift of berries to thank them for their benevolent service. That was a common practice in coastal areas, as common as barter: "Keep my boat safe when I go to sea, and I'll keep you in eggs or potatoes or sharpen your scissors or mend your fence. I'll even share my cranberries."
The ritual of making an old, treasured recipe recalls the past in a very sensory and sentimental way. I love such traditions. Perhaps you do too. If so, dig your hands into some flour and sugar and shortening, toss in an egg and some cranberries, and exhume a piece of lighthouse history.
Nobska Lighthouse Cranberry Bread
2 and a 1/4 cups of flour
3/4 cup of sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup of whole milk
1 T of lard or other shortening
1 cup cranberries, cook in a little water to soften and make a gel
1 cup chopped nuts of your choice
Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Combine egg, milk, and lard and beat well. Work in flour a little at a time, then add cooled cranberries and walnuts. Mixture will be thick. Don't overwork it. Grease and flour two loaf pans and divide dough mixture between them. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, inserting a knife to check for doneness. Cool for ten minutes, then turn out onto a plate. When completely cool, sprinkle with sugar and slice.
Elinor's Note: I make this with butter instead of lard. It's hard to find lard, and my doctor would swoon if she thought I was eating it. I certainly consumed plenty of it as child; my mother cooked many things with lard. She kept it in a large metal can. Lard gets a bad rap, due to its saturated fat content, but it really is an excellent shortening. The taste is irreplaceable. Butter has saturated fat too, so I don't really see the difference. Use whatever works for you. Also, sometimes I substitute a cup of whole berry cranberry sauce from a can, and it works if I add an extra tablespoon or two of flour. It makes the bread a pretty pink color. My favorite nuts for this recipe are walnuts. Happy baking!
(Photo below of Nobska Lighthouse can be found in Wikimedia Commons.)