Lobster vs. Turkey: Historic Food for Thought for Your Thanksgiving

Recently, I was thinking about how different our Thanksgiving looks today compared with that first celebration nearly 400 years ago. Now of course, given what I do for a living, I took it a step further to base my comparison on the water side of things. Let’s break down some of my key observations of then (1621) vs. now (2019).

How many place settings? Historians tell us that 143 people—53 pilgrims and 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe—attended the first Thanksgiving. Today, approximately 276 million Americans partake of the Thanksgiving feast, generating a much bigger water footprint — from feeding to flushing to coffee and cleanup.

Talking turkey. While today it’s unheard of to have a Thanksgiving feast “sans Butterball,” turkey was an item absent from the table in 1621. In fact, the main protein source for the celebration back then was—you guessed it—courtesy of water resources. Lobster, oysters, clams, mussels and waterfowl were the mainstays, supplemented by venison and possibly wildfowl. So, while today’s turkey farmers and packers require water to raise and produce our main dish, early Thanksgiving tables were supplied by the water!

Please pass the corn mush. When looking at Thanksgiving side dishes, we may observe that “what goes around comes around.” Today’s plant-based-diet trend would have fit in perfectly during the first Thanksgiving! Celebrants used what they could harvest around them, mainly root vegetables, squash, spinach, cabbage, berries, grapes, plums and herbs—as well as corn, which was ground into meal then boiled into mush. You’ll note the lack of some of today’s staples, such as cranberry relish, sweet potatoes with marshmallow and pumpkin pie. While the ready and ample supply of clean water today allows us the “luxury” of everything from wheat flour for pie crusts and stuffing to dairy-farm cream and butter for potato-mashing, our predecessors’ dishes were very water “non-reliant.” Water was used only for growing and minimally for cooking. For the most part, foods were eaten as the land provided them.

Hydro-what?! Speaking of harvesting, we’ve come a long way in terms of growing our Thanksgiving favorites—and doing so in water-responsible ways. Settlers and indigenous people relied on rain patterns and irrigation—sometimes crops thrived; sometimes they withered or rotted from too much water. Today, irrigation technology allows growers to utilize water much more effectively and conservatively. And how great would it be to teach Chief Massasoit and John Alden the beauty of soil-saving, water-conserving hydroponic gardening?!

And the recycling award goes to … our Thanksgiving celebrants of 1621! Yes, Americans are doing much better at recycling and protecting the environment. But if you think about it, virtually nothing got tossed away at the first Thanksgiving. There were no paper napkins, plastic cups or cardboard packaging—everything got reused over and over. Even when you consider food items, nothing went to waste. Corn husks were composted or made into toys, animals were used for their meat, hides were turned into clothes, bones became tools and so forth.

Cleanup is awash! We can be certain any cleaning “products” used by settlers were natural-based and didn’t introduce chemicals to the water resources. However, I must give accolades to contemporary feasters too, for their increased use of environmentally safe products and water- and energy-saving dishwashers and washing machines.

And there you have it—your food, and water, for thought this season. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!