Historical Event

Americans ate far more red meat than vegetables.

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In the absence of scientific data, history can provide a picture of food consumption in the late-eighteenth- to nineteenth-century in America. Although circumstantial, historical evidence can also be rigorous and, in this case, is certainly more far-reaching than the inchoate data from the USDA. Academic nutrition experts rarely consult historical texts, considering them to occupy a separate academic silo with little to offer the study of diet and health. Yet history can teach us a great deal about how humans used to eat in the thousands of years before heart disease, diabetes, and obesity became common. Of course we don’t remember now, but these diseases did not always rage as they do today. And looking at the food patterns of our relatively healthy early American ancestors, it’s quite clear that they ate far more red meat and far fewer vegetables than we have commonly assumed.

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 eighteenth-century Swedish visitor described. And there was little point in farming since meat was so readily available.

The endless bounty of America in its early years is truly astonishing. 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.IX

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