Cranberries, the final flourish

Special to The Times

CRANBERRY red is the Tiffany touch on the Thanksgiving plate. The jewel-like quality of the color adds just the right accent to the dressiest meal of the year.

Just about everything else on the plate starts out one hue and morphs. Cranberries keep their in-your-eye vibrancy no matter how long you cook them, or how many other ingredients you make them play with. No wonder the Wampanoags who celebrated the first feast with the Pilgrims used the native berries as a dye as well as a food (they developed the original sun-dried cranberries for a form of jerky called pemmican).

Even cooks who compulsively reinvent the entire turkey-and-trimmings menu every November feel compelled to serve some permutation of cranberry sauce -- and not just for tradition's sake. Certainly nothing else counters the richness of the meal as well, but the color contrast is as crucial as the tangy tartness.

Red complements every other classic ingredient: the white and dark meat of the turkey, the ivory of the mashed potatoes, the glistening tan of the gravy, the dusky brown of the stuffing, the velvety green of whatever vegetable steps up to the plate to add another hint of color -- and especially the deep orange of sweet potatoes, with or without their crown of marshmallows.

The fact that cranberries are one of the very few ingredients that remain truly seasonal simply adds to the allure of their skins. For all the incessant finagling of agribusiness, cranberries can only be brought to market for a few short months in the fall.

Maybe that's why they evoke autumn leaves in New England. And anyone who has ever watched them being corralled on flooded bogs against the backdrop of countless trees changing from green to crimson and gold knows that the cranberry harvest is the greatest show in agriculture. A flash of jewel-worthy red brings a little of that drama to the table too.

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