It’s the end of November, and for many, that means you've just finished celebrating Thanksgiving by sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends. The foods we enjoy at our celebrations this week were tied to nature just as it was when Native Americans and Pilgrims came together to celebrate the fall harvest years ago.
The meal shared in 1621 has similarities and differences to the modern Thanksgiving dinner we know. To start, the turkey would not have been the focal point of the feast. Wild turkeys work hard, spending a large amount of time on the move to find enough food to eat. All this work leads to tough meat, and these birds would have likely been boiled or incorporated into a stew instead of roasted for the festivities.
Other birds that the Pilgrims would have hunted, and were probably cooked for the three-day feast, include goose, duck, swan, and even passenger pigeon.
Another food item documented as being included at the feast is venison. First-hand accounts from the event tell us that the Wampanoag tribe brought five deer to share with the Pilgrims. In addition, historians think that the Native Americans likely supplied additional food items for the feast. This food would have been gathered from the local landscape as the deer had been. Local waterways provided the tribe with fish from rivers or clams and mussels from the Atlantic Ocean.
The tribe grew maize, beans, squash and pumpkins, which had been cultivated from wild varieties of these plants. Finally, nuts, like chestnuts and walnuts, would have been gathered from trees native to the region. Mother Nature provided many resources for the celebration.
Today, our Thanksgiving feast still connects us to the amazing resources that nature has to offer. The turkeys we know today have been refined over many years through selective breeding. Domesticated turkeys have larger muscles than their wild counterparts to provide more food from a single bird. Plus, being raised on farms, the domesticated birds spend less time foraging for food, creating tender meat. The turkey that has become part of our holiday meal would not be possible without the wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving.
It's important for each of us to remember that nature’s bounty is not an unlimited resource. The passenger pigeon, served as a part of that historic meal, was hunted to extinction. This pigeon species was the most common bird species in North America for decades; their flocks were numerous enough to darken the sky when they took flight but were officially listed as extinct in 1914.
Overuse of natural resources has caused the extinction of many species, not just the passenger pigeon, but this does not need to be true today. As you take time to celebrate your many blessings this holiday season, consider what you can do to ensure nature’s bounty will be around for future generations.
The oceans that provided plentiful resources for Native Americans and early settlers are facing shrinking populations due to overfishing today. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has created Seafood Watch, a resource to help everyone identify sustainable seafood options and ensure that we are not compromising populations through overfishing. Visit http://www.seafoodwatch.org/ to learn more, and don’t forget to download the app to your cell phone to be in the know wherever you are.
Through our actions today, we can each help protect nature’s bounty for years to come.
Catie Policastro is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.