Thanksgiving Fish: The Missing Ingredient

By Steve Midway

As many of us in the U.S. prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday later this week, a litany of traditional foods comes to mind: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie.  Indeed—in some form or another—many of these foods were present at the first Thanksgiving.  However, conspicuously absent from both the traditional shopping list and holiday table are fish and shellfish, which were most certainly featured prominently at the first Thanksgiving.

Pass the eel, please. (Source)

While perhaps not the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving, fish and shellfish were abundant in coastal Colonial waters and relatively easy to harvest—meaning they were already part of the historic diet.  Mussels and clams were a simple collect, and a number of other nearshore and shallow-water shellfish, including lobster, likely made the table.  Middens—mounds of old shells—have been dated for archaeological purposes and indicate that shellfish consumption predates any colonists.

Colonists may have brought with them some nets, but it’s less clear how much (deep-water) fishing early settlers did.  In his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky discusses the the importance of cod fishing in the founding and settling of North America, so it’s clear that fishing was taking place nearby even if Cod didn’t make the Thanksgiving menu.  Daniel Schmidt summarizes fishing efforts in colonial Virginia and provides evidence for seines and hook-and-line fishing, which may likely have also been used in New England.

Fishhooks found at Fort James, dating back to colonists. (Schmidt 2006)

One method of capturing fish that was particularly effective was taught to the colonists by the Native Americans.  This method is often referred to as a fish trap or fish weir.  The premise is simple: create an enclosure (often baited) that funnels fish in, but from which fish typically cannot escape.  Large, old stone weirs are still visible on some rivers, and pound net fishing is just a larger and slightly more elaborate version of the same principle.  For a basic idea of how a simple fish trap works, check out the video below!

As you can see, fishing was a well-developed activity by the time the colonists arrived in North America, and they quickly took it up.  Spearfishing, fish traps, and shellfish collection likely resulted in plenty of eels, sturgeon, and bivalves being served at the first Thanksgiving.  By all means, continue the tradition of turkey and stuffing, but why not add a little smoked eel for that authentic Thanksgiving experience?

If you have fish at your traditional Thanksgiving feast, in the comments below let us know what you serve!

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One response to “Thanksgiving Fish: The Missing Ingredient

  1. Maybe not quite smoked eel, but I always make my special oyster and sausage dressing to go with the turkey — oysters being one of my native Virginia's proud shellfish heritage. Nice blog!

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