When you read accounts of life in the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies in the early 1600s, you realize hunger was a constant presence. Colonists subsisted on what they could produce themselves: growing their own crops, tending the meager herds of livestock that survived the voyage across the Atlantic, and hunting wild game. Often they starved and died, especially during the cold, difficult winters. Of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown, only 60 were still alive after the first winter.
You have to wonder what they would think of 21st-century America and its abundance of cheap food. They would probably be stunned by the supermarkets and factory farms. They would be even more amazed at contemporary American behaviors surrounding food: fast food, super-size portions, calorie counting, the pervasive “good food/bad food” attitudes, bizarre diets such as the Cookie Diet, and competitive all-you-can-eat contests.
It’s intriguing to speculate whether those early, harrowing experiences of famine and hunger have somehow been imprinted on the national psyche, creating a uniquely American obsession over what we eat.
Maybe it’s why the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is such a big deal: It symbolizes a fundamental aspect of our history and culture.
The first Thanksgiving dinner (or, more accurately, a harvest dinner), most likely consisted of fare such as greens, shellfish and roasted meat – similar to this menu re-created at the Plimouth Plantation museum in Massachusetts.
Almost 400 years later, Thanksgiving dinner clearly has succumbed to modern-day food habits. I was a little surprised to learn that when Cornell University analyzed Thanksgiving recipes from 50 years ago and compared them to today, researchers found the calorie count has remained mostly stable.
Previous studies of non-Thanksgiving recipes by lab director Brian Wansink had found that calorie counts for many classic cookbook recipes have ballooned by nearly 40 percent during the past 70 years.
But Thanksgiving staples didn’t follow that trend.
Calorie counts for five of the eight recipes tested actually dropped by almost a third when comparing 1956 Better Homes and Gardens recipes to the 2006 edition of the “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook,” changes Wansink attributed partly to the use of lower-calorie ingredients, such as low-fat milk instead of cream. Surprisingly, some serving sizes went down over the decades too.
But wait. Plates are bigger, turkeys are much larger and it seems that as we sit down around the Thanksgiving table, we’re just eating… well, more. The Cornell University laboratory computed around 2,000 calories in the average Thanksgiving dinner.
I suppose we could wring our hands about overeating and obesity, but would it be in the spirit of the original Thanksgiving? I seriously doubt the colonists cared about calories. I don’t think they worried about whether the turkey came from an organic farm, and they would have been completely baffled by tofurky. They were just thankful there was plenty of food on the table and that they were there to enjoy it.
Of all the days in the year, this should be one occasion to set aside the nagging and the obsession about portions, calories, trans fats and waistlines. (At first I thought it was a joke, but no, the Center for Consumer Freedom has actually issued a ThanksgivingÂ obesity liabilityÂ waiver and they’re serious about it.) We can resume our worrying on Friday. So go forth, eat, enjoy and be grateful.