Don’t Like the American Way of Meat? Blame That First Thanksgiving Meal

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Illustration depicting the Pilgrims serving food to American Indians at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621.

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.”

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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 AmericaThe views expressed are solely her own. 

3 comments
GregWiens
GregWiens

Who lived longer, were healthier, and had a higher standard of living, those back in England or those in the colonies?  

Those in the colonies of course! 

Now our overeating today is a different thing, but go back 300 years ago the average Brit living in America was much better off then back in England.  If this were not the case then we would not have seen so many want to move here. 

By the way, the reason why so few French moved here was just for the opposite reason, they were to well off in France to feel the need to move to North America.  They had food and security.  

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

It would seem to me, based on history, that affluence and affordability, far more than "thanksgiving", has dictated who can and can't eat a lot of meat.  Only the wealthy in England were landowners (We were talking monarchy and royalty here, not a democracy).  In the colonies, the same pattern remained for most of our history until independence which more or less evened the playing field as to who could be a land owner.  Again, it was mostly the wealthy, but land became available for sale by the masses as well.  This led to more "animal husbandry", which like anything done on a mass scale led to more meat eating by everyone. It would have happened in England if more people were royalty and/or gentrified land owners.

The pseudo-logical argument presented in this article lacks all foundation for the simple fact that meat was readily - and cheaply - available in the Americas, and has been nurtured to remain a mostly affordable staple.  But it, too, is fiscally separated with the finest, best cuts only readily affordable by the more affluent.  Furthermore, America didn't even HAVE a "thanksgiving" for another two hundred and fifty years (It started in 1863 by presidential proclamation).  It was only ever "celebrated" the one time before then and faded into the myth and lore of the nation's history.

When taken as a whole, across the world and throughout history, availability and affordability are what dictates the amount of meat we consume.  The holiday has nothing to do with it.

Yoshi
Yoshi

Don't like it? Don't do it. What's the big deal? There's no "rule". Eat what you like.