Americans are the world’s champion meat eaters. For that we can thank (or not) our colonial ancestors. Back in the old country, England, meat was for the upper ruling classes, who ate it with great gusto, but most Brits were consuming next to no meat at all. But the first settlers, people of low birth and meager circumstance, transformed their new home into a paradise of domestic livestock and meat-centric diets. We can understand why by looking at the event that would later become known as the first Thanksgiving.
In late 1620, a small band of English travelers dropped anchor offshore what is now Massachusetts. Weak from their journey and taken aback by the harsh weather, the voyagers remained on board their cramped vessel until spring of 1621. Once ashore, the settlers encountered an otherworldly abundance. A “great store of fruits” hung ripe for the taking, marveled one man, and “great flocks of turkey, quails, pigeons and partridges” abounded. Waterways teemed with fish and turtle, beaver and otter, and the woods were thick with squirrel, fox and deer. The natives — savages, the English called them — taught the newcomers to hunt game and introduced them to the wonders of corn.
In late autumn 1621, the whites celebrated their first year in the New World with a three-day feast rich with meat: enough fowl to feed everyone for a week and five venison carcasses contributed by the natives who joined the festivities. Thanks to the “goodness of God,” wrote one celebrant, “we are … far from want.”
And it’s a safe bet that he and his fellow colonists also begged God to spare them a repeat of that humiliating experience of having to hunt wild animals for meat. In England, hunting had two strikes against it. English law defined the activity as a sport reserved for landowners. Anyone else who dared go a-hunting was a poacher, a lawbreaker. But poachers poached because they lacked their own meat and so they were also, by definition, people who failed to practice livestock husbandry. In English eyes, that bordered on sin. Domestic livestock, especially hogs and cattle, ensured supplies of the beef and pork that marked the diet of civilized people. Livestock represented not just tangible wealth and nutritional security, but civilization itself.
The new settlers may have come from circumstances where they rarely enjoyed meat, but they believed it their task to civilize the New World wilderness by populating it with livestock. Colony governor William Bradford urged them to do so: Because the natives hunted wild animals and kept neither cattle nor hogs, he decreed, they had no claim to the land. It belonged to the English.
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Over the next few decades, whites systematically forced natives deeper into the interior and replaced them with cattle and hogs as well as laws and fences aimed at protecting both. By the eve of independence, Europeans had transformed the Eastern seaboard into a carnivore’s paradise where even indentured servants expected regular servings of meat. One awed visitor reported that “in the humblest and poorest houses, no meals are served without a meat course.” When the revolution ended, Americans expanded their carnivorous cornucopia, streaming into the interior to claim still more millions of acres for themselves and their livestock. A century later, Americans boasted built a continent-wide, meat-making infrastructure that ensured plenty of meat for rich and poor alike.
These days, the American way of meat is under attack. Critics complain that meat-centric diets are killing us. They charge that Big Ag’s factory-like livestock-feeding facilities wreak havoc on air, land and water. Meatpackers propel carcasses along high-speed processing lines that all but ensure that much of the resulting meat is tainted by bacteria.
Not everyone agrees with that critique, of course. But blaming corporate villains for what ails meat in America won’t help us understand how we got to where we are today. This Thanksgiving, let’s rethink the meaning of that first feast and our own role in shaping and sustaining the American way of meat.
Maureen Ogle is a historian and author of several books, including Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer and In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America. The views expressed are solely her own.