How Americans Used To Eat

Hint: It wasn’t plants:

Early Americans settlers were “indifferent” farmers, according to many accounts. They were fairly lazy in their efforts at both animal husbandry and agriculture, with “the grain fields, the meadows, the forests, the cattle, etc, treated with equal carelessness,” as one 18th-century Swedish visitor described—and there was little point in farming since meat was so readily available.

Settlers recorded the extraordinary abundance of wild turkeys, ducks, grouse, pheasant, and more. Migrating flocks of birds would darken the skies for days. The tasty Eskimo curlew was apparently so fat that it would burst upon falling to the earth, covering the ground with a sort of fatty meat paste. (New Englanders called this now-extinct species the “doughbird.”)

In the woods, there were bears (prized for their fat), raccoons, bobo­links, opossums, hares, and virtual thickets of deer—so much that the colo­nists didn’t even bother hunting elk, moose, or bison, since hauling and conserving so much meat was considered too great an effort. A European traveler describing his visit to a Southern plantation noted that the food included beef, veal, mutton, venison, turkeys, and geese, but he does not mention a single vegetable.

Infants were fed beef even before their teeth had grown in. The English novelist Anthony Trollope reported, during a trip to the United States in 1861, that Americans ate twice as much beef as did Englishmen. Charles Dickens, when he visited, wrote that “no breakfast was breakfast” without a T-bone steak. Apparently, starting a day on puffed wheat and low-fat milk—our “Breakfast of Champions!”—would not have been considered adequate even for a servant.

Indeed, for the first 250 years of American history, even the poor in the United States could afford meat or fish for every meal. The fact that the workers had so much access to meat was precisely why observers regarded the diet of the New World to be superior to that of the Old.

Lobster used to be fed to prisoners, because it was considered inferior to other meats. The notion that we ate plants is all part of the junk science of nutrition.

18 thoughts on “How Americans Used To Eat”

  1. The tasty Eskimo curlew was apparently so fat that it would burst upon falling to the earth, covering the ground with a sort of fatty meat paste. (New Englanders called this now-extinct species the “doughbird.”)

    Maybe we should focus on animals other than (in addition to?) mammoths for revival efforts.

    Surely Americans ate some plants?

    1. By eating herbivores we do eat plants. Pre-processed into nice, tasty meat, for our convenience.

  2. Science Daily: Neanderthals diet: 80% meat, 20% vegetables

    summary: Scientists have studied the Neanderthals’ diet. Based on the isotope composition in the collagen from the prehistoric humans’ bones, they were able to show that, while the Neanderthals’ diet consisted primarily of large plant eaters such at mammoths and rhinoceroses, it also included vegetarian food.

    Yeah, I sometimes eat vegetarian food with my meals. My A-1 clone has golden raisins, mustard, ketchup, and black pepper, and my Worcestershire sauce (which is in the A-1) has tarragon and apple cider vinegar, molasses, tamarind juice, avocado oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice, allspice, ginger, garlic powder, onion powder, and white and black pepper – all vegetarian ingredients. My Worcestershire includes Red Boat 45N fish sauce (Vietnam’s best product, as far as I’m concerned), which would show up differently than large herbivore meat in an isotopic analysis.

    I’d be curious to see if the 20% of vegetarian matter the Neanderthal’s ate was purely Worcestershire and A-1, or whether it also included some kind of proto-ketchup.

  3. Michael Jackson knew what he was doing. I understand he fed his young houseguests tubesteak. Heigh-yo!

  4. One of the facts ignored by nutritionists is that humans can survive indefinitely on pemmican, which is a 50:50 mix of animal protein and fat. High quality (i.e., tastier) pemmicans include things like ground blueberries in the mix.

    My guess (based on eclectic historical reading) is the meat diet was rounded out with cornbread, rye, millet, and things like johnny cakes, all cooked with or in animal fat. My diet used to be dominated by meat, eggs, milk and cheese, rounded out with various breads and pastas, with my main vegetable fare being dominated by things like cabbage and spinach. These days, the breads and pastas have been replaced by beans (mainly black and pinto).

    1. Pemmican was a Native American invention, which combined dehydrated (jerked) meat with rendered fat (and occasional berries and nuts) to form a highly portable food with a very long shelf life. When I was a young person, I learned about this food’s virtues from the writings of renowned hiker Colin Fletcher. He could carry two weeks of food in a backpack, needing only an occasional source of either cached or natural water. His favorite, Wilson’s Certified Meatfood Product, was no longer available when I did my extended hikes, so I learned to make my own. From jerking the meat to rendering the fat, to casting the mixture into 3 oz cakes in a cupcake pan, I had it down to a fine art. And there was a stretch when I ate nothing but for a little shy of a month. I never got tired of it, and it never diminished my vitality. I’ll have to start that up again…

  5. The American poor could still afford plenty of meat if they would stop buying carbage and learn to cook. The pork butt (i.e. shoulder) in my oven cost $1 per pound. I marinated it like sauerbraten for a week except with coffee rather than vinegar. Data analysis to follow.

    1. I live in the rural south. In the grocery stores (only accessible by car), I see my neighbors (50% African-American) buying a lot of inexpensive pork as you describe. Chicken is also cheap. People with enough property raise chickens for eggs and meat, but there’s little pork raised in my part of NC (east of here is another story). Urban poor have a problem buying raw food to cook due to sequestration of grocery stores. You can’t live where I do without a car; the nearest grocery store is 15 miles away. In urban areas, at least some of the problem is de facto segregation, some of it traditional (poor people live in their own neighborhoods, and some effort has been put into blocking off foot traffic to more affluent areas [and stores]). Of course, people don’t want to go where they’re not welcome. And, meanwhile, junk food outlets are everywhere. Why walk 5 miles to a Kroger store, when there’s a Hardy’s across the street?

      1. I concede your points. I was thinking of the ‘working poor’ or at least the urban poor who can get a subsidized bus pass.

        The city I currently live in has an interstate highway that separates the old black ghetto from the rest of the city so effectively I must suspect it was intentional. But the highway access road was named for Martin Luther King, so there’s that.

      2. Rice Cookers and microwave ovens, wonderful gadgets. I bought a Zojirushi 3-cup “fuzzy logic” rice cooker and stopped buying frozen TV Dinners and entrees. Less trash to throw out and saved a lot of money.

        A few simple things can make a big difference in monthly food bills.

    2. The coffee flavor and spices were mild and pleasant. Unfortunately the meat was shipped in a Cryovac bag, and manifestly inferior to fresh. Live and learn.

  6. My grandparents were born in East Texas in 1904. When they were young the following staples were grown and consumed in quantity:
    corn meal (in corn bread or boiled as a mush)
    dried peas and beans
    canned okra, tomatoes, and peppers
    potatoes (“banked” to keep during the winter)
    pork (eaten fresh or smoked)
    milk, butter, cheese, buttermilk
    These were supplemented by hunting and fishing.

  7. “One of the facts ignored by nutritionists is that humans can survive indefinitely on pemmican, which is a 50:50 mix of animal protein and fat.”
    There are no essential carbohydrates. Some carbs do however contain essential vitamins and minerals.

    1. When I first heard of this, I looked into it a bit, wondering about the same issue. Turns out animals store fat-soluble vitamins in… fat. I didn’t pursue it far enough to find out about water-soluble vitamins, but it might be berries added more than just flavor to the pemmican. My guess is, African archaic humans probably ate the wild tubers found in and around the Rift Valley lakes. Since they’d be eating those unpeeled and probably raw, even a small amount would flesh out the vitamins and minerals. Once they started cooking meat, baked tubers would have been a pretty easy discovery. I eat carrots mainly as a component of pot roast. At least a quarter of my diet is meat-dominant pot-au-feu.

  8. “Lobster used to be fed to prisoners, because it was considered inferior to other meats.”

    Heck, Lobster used to be used for FERTILIZER.

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