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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Modes of Producing the First Thanksgiving

James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, on the social and cultural adjustments required of the Pilgrims before a self-sustaining mode of production could emerge:

They Held Their Noses, and Ate, by James E. McWilliams, Commentary, NY Times: No contemporary American holiday is as deeply steeped in culinary tradition as Thanksgiving. ... [It's] a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods - usually some combination of turkey, corn, cranberries, squash and pumpkin pie. Decorated with these dishes, the Thanksgiving table has become a secular altar upon which we worship America's pioneering character, a place to show reverence for the rugged Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in peace, sat with the Indians as equals and indulged in the New World's cornucopia with gusto. But you might call this comfort food for a comfort myth.

The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist ... Our comfort food ... was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence. Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food - much less foods native to North America. ... It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values. Sarah Josepha Hale and her fellow Martha Stewarts of the day implored families to "sit down together at the feast of fat things" and raise a toast to the Thanksgiving holiday. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the cornucopia-inspired myth was, as a result of these literary efforts, in full bloom. ... [H]owever, the earthy victuals that Thanksgiving revisionists arranged on the Pilgrims' fictional table were foods that Pilgrims and their descendants would have rather avoided.

The reason is fairly simple. Hale and her fellow writers seem to have forgotten ... their Puritan forebears ... strict notions about food production and preparation. Proper notions of English husbandry generally demanded that flesh be domesticated, grain neatly planted and fruit and vegetables cultivated in gardens and orchards. Given these expectations, English migrants recoiled upon discovering that the native inhabitants hunted their game, grew their grain haphazardly and foraged for fruit and vegetables. ... [T]he English deemed the native manner of acquiring these goods nothing short of barbaric. ... They typically prepared fields by setting fire to the underbrush and girdling surrounding trees. Afterward, they planted corn, gourds and beans willy-nilly across charred ground, possibly throwing in fish as fertilizer. To the Indian women who tended the plants with clamshell hoes, the ecological brilliance of this arrangement was abundantly clear: the cornstalks stretched into sturdy poles for the beans to climb upon, the corn leaves fanned out to provide squash with shade, and the beans enriched the soil with extra nitrogen. But the English, blinded by tradition, never got it - they just looked on in horror. Where were the fences? The neat rows of cross-sectioned grain? The plows? ... The team of oxen? ... Why were perfectly good trees left to rot? ... And those fish! Why not salt them down and export them to Europe for a tidy profit? What was wrong with these people? The collective English answer - "everything" - honed the colonists' distaste for foods, especially corn and squash, that they quickly judged best for farm animals.

A similar culinary misunderstanding developed over meat. To be sure, the English frequently hunted for their meals. But hunting was preferably a sport. When the English farmer chased game to feed his family, he did so with pangs of shame. To resort to the hunt was, after all, indicative of agricultural failure... Thus the colonists reacted with extreme disapproval when they saw Indian men ... disappearing into the woods for weeks at a time to track down protein. Making the scene even more primitive was that the women who stayed behind ... toiling away at odd jobs that the English valiantly considered men's work. The elk, bear, raccoon, possum and indeed the wild turkeys that the men hauled back to the village were, for all these reasons, tainted goods reflective of multiple agricultural perversions.

They were also ... unavoidable. The methods that colonists condemned as agriculturally backwards ... became necessary to their survival. No matter how hard they tried, no matter how carefully they tended their crops and repaired their fences ... and furrowed their fields, colonial Americans failed to replicate European husbandry practices. Geography alone wouldn't allow it. The adaptation of Indian agricultural techniques ... provoked severe cultural insecurity. This insecurity turned to conspicuous dread when the colonists were mocked by their metropolitan cousins as living, in the words of one haughty Englishman, "in a state of ignorance and barbarism, not much superior to those of the native Indians." This hurt. And under the circumstances no status-minded English colonist would have possibly highlighted his adherence to native American victuals ... Indeed, it wasn't until after the Revolution, when the new nation was seeking ways to differentiate itself from the Old World, that these foods became celebrated as a reflection of emerging ideals like simplicity, manifest destiny and rugged individualism. ...

Caroline Baum at Bloomberg also talks about early Thanksgivings:

Give Thanks for Incentives Along With the Feast, by Caroline Baum, Bloomberg: It is the tradition of this column every year at this time to relate the story of Thanksgiving. For source material, I relied on the accounts of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony beginning in 1621 (Bradford's History ''Of Plimoth Plantation'').

Most Americans think of Thanksgiving as a day off from school or work, a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate with a huge feast. If children know anything about the origins of this national holiday, ... it's that the Pilgrims, grateful for a good harvest in their new land, set aside this day to give thanks. What they and many adults don't know is that conditions weren't always good for the Pilgrims... Their first winters after they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and established the Plymouth Bay Colony were harsh. The weather and crop yields were poor. Half the Pilgrims died or returned to England in the first year. Those who remained went hungry. Despite their deep religious convictions, the Pilgrims took to stealing from one another. ...

One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with them from England was a practice known as ''farming in common.'' Everything they produced was put into a common pool; the harvest was rationed among them according to need. They had thought ''that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing,'' Bradford recounts. They were wrong. ''For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte,'' Bradford writes. Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation. They thought it an ''injuestice'' to receive the same allotment of food and clothing as those who didn't pull their weight. What they lacked were proper incentives.

After the Pilgrims had endured near-starvation for three winters, Bradford decided to experiment when it came time to plant in the spring of 1623. He set aside a plot of land for each family, that ''they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves.'' The results were nothing short of miraculous. Bradford writes: ''This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave far better content.'' The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property and enjoyed the fruits of their labor, eventually producing enough to trade their excess corn for furs and other desired commodities.

Given appropriate incentives, the Pilgrims produced and enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623 and set aside ''a day of thanksgiving'' to thank God for their good fortune. ''Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,'' Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his History. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Pilgrims' good fortune was not a matter of luck. In 1623, they were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, have come to be regarded as necessary for a free and prosperous society.

Interesting contrast in views.

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