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So Why Is That Can Of Cranberry Sauce Upside Down Anyway?

by Rudy Sanchez on 11/14/2022 | 3 Minute Read

Every home has its unique spread for Thanksgiving, using family recipes and serving meals from their own traditions and culture. But mainstays like turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce are usually part of the American holiday feast.

Cranberries, which grow on shrubs in bogs, are a small, tart fruit related to the blueberry and huckleberry family. Not only was it eaten by indigenous people like the Narragansett before Europeans landed in North America, but it was also used as a textile dye. The Pilgrims may have served up a sauce made of boiled cranberries at the first Thanksgiving, but chances are, it bore no resemblance to the kind we typically find at our holiday meal. Sugar was hard to come by for those early settlers, and cranberry sauce is usually sweetened to balance the tartness of the fruit. 

Still, it’s easy to see why cranberry sauce is such a popular Thanksgiving side dish. Its sweetness and acidity balance the slight gaminess of turkey, the richness of gravy, and the saltiness of other sides. Plus, it's hard to imagine having a leftover turkey sandwich without a healthy schmear of the stuff.

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Before the twentieth century, cranberries were consumed almost exclusively in the fall after harvest season as they didn’t keep for long. So when lawyer-turned-farmer Marcus L. Urann started his cranberry operation, he included a cooking facility with the idea of selling cranberries year-round. By 1930, Urann convinced fellow cranberry competitors John Makepeace and Elizabeth Lee to join forces and form a cooperative that would become Ocean Spray. The co-op would grow, expanding the market from New England nationwide for cranberry-based products like cranberry juice cocktail and Thanksgiving stalwart jellied cranberry sauce.

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Unlike a cranberry jam, relish, or chutney, the jellied sauce comes in a solid, gelatinous piece in the form of the can it’s packaged in. Ocean Spray’s cranberry log sauce was available nationally starting in 1941. The public quickly took to Ocean Spray’s canned sauce, and the co-op would continue innovating on jellied cranberry sauce, creating new ways to prepare the popular side dish.

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Dan Hamilton, head of marketing center of excellence at Ocean Spray, told food media outlet The Takeout that Ocean Spray sells 77 million cans of jellied cranberry sauce annually, compared to 22 million bags of fresh berries. The homemade relish is clearly less popular, despite how easy it is to make and personalize—Ocean Spray even prints a basic recipe on the back of the fresh cranberry bags. It’s probably one of the easiest Thanksgiving dishes to make from scratch, but America obviously prefers the jiggly stuff to boiling cranberries over a hot stove.

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As traditional as jellied cranberry sauce is at Thanksgiving, Ocean Spray never rests on its laurels. In the early 2000s, Ocean Spray began canning the holiday side dish “upside-down,” or more accurately, with the label facing down. Metal cans have a top and bottom—the top has a recessed lid that allows for opening, and the bottom is rounded.

Eagle-eyed consumers have noticed the upside-down label but were likely left wondering why. It’s not due to some factory error. It’s an intentional packaging choice made by Ocean Spray and other brands.

The bubble end of a can of cranberry sauce has an air pocket. When opened, if a consumer slides a knife around the sauce, the vacuum is broken, and the air escapes, helping the jellied cranberry slide out in one piece. It’s a clever application of science that might have gone over many people’s heads, but ultimately, it's a joyful act that produces a satisfying canned-shape log.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why cranberry sauce labels are upside down, now you know. Also, if you’re in charge of the cranberry sauce ala Bart this year, remember the trick for serving a perfect, single piece on the plate.

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