10 November 2009

Culture Spot : The Food That Kept America Growing

Although early Americans lived with uncertain harvests, their bountiful new land was amply supplied with finned (having fins), furred (having fur), and feathered (having feathers) fare. Indeed, one writer claimed that “game made the settlement of America possible.”

Some colonists suffered a surfeit of seafood. In 1622 the Pilgrims bemoaned the fact that they could offer newcomers nothing but lobster (some of which weighed 11 kilograms). And Captain John Smith observed, “He is a very bad fisherman who cannot kill in one day one, two or three hundred cod.”

In later centuries the abundance of game on the frontier was equally astonishing. On a wagon trip west from Missouri, one boy wrote that “frequently my father killed three deer (note: singular and plural forms are the same!) before breakfast.” Countless settlers made meals of the then-ubiquitous passenger pigeon. The birds (now extinct – in part as a result of overhunting) flew in flocks so vast that they darkened the sky. A single blast of buckshot could fell as many as 125. In 1736 the birds were so prolific that farmers fed them to their pigs, and city dwellers could by a half-dozen for a penny.

Those with more refined palates dined on the delectable canvasback duck – a treat praised by the hard-to-please English novelist Frederick Marryat. Describing the “countless profusion” at American markets, Marryat wrote that he had seen “nearly three hundred head of deer, with quantities of bear, raccoons . . . and every variety of bird. Bear I abominate,” he cautioned, but “raccoon is pretty good.”

Another observer, however, noted that a companion enjoyed bear meat “so passionately that he would growl like a Wild-Cat over a Squirrel.” Other native delicacies included beaver tail, moose (especially the nose), and terrapin.

Taken and adapted from Reader’s Digest Discovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History & Lore of Our Great Nation

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