I grew up in a small, historic town on the coast of Massachusetts called Ipswich, named after Ipswich England when English settlers populated the area in the early 1600s. This area, along with the rest of coastal New England has a very rich and dynamic history with food. This region has a large variety of ecosystems and landscapes, all abundant with different species that have been used as food by humans for hundreds of years. In just a few miles you encounter ocean, beaches, marshes, wetlands, pastureland and forests. In the ocean, fish, lobster, and eels are abundant. On the shorelines, mudflats and marshes are clams, crabs, mussels, and oysters. Grassy fields provide a space for gardening and raising pasture animals, and the forest hosts game animals such as rabbits, turkey, and deer as well as rivers yielding freshwater fish.
I have always taken an interest in these landscapes and the culture behind the food that they provide. My family has taken advantage of these amazing food sources provided by this region for four generations. Therefore, I am interested in researching how Native Peoples and the English settlers used the food resources available to them in this region and how it shaped the food culture in coastal New England in relation to my families own history of “living off of the land” and how it has shaped our values and perspective towards food resources then and now.
Inhabitants of coastal New England have been able to use the area’s diverse and abundant ecosystems as a source of food security for hundreds of years. This research project is unique in that it provides a mix of historical and academic information as well as personal anecdotes from my family’s experience in this area. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and stay at home orders, I thought it would be useful to analyze the past and present relationship between New Englanders and their connection to food found in their environments. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, my family and other people in this area have an opportunity to use these ecosystems and the food that they provide in an attempt to combat food security, keeping in mind the lessons about resource limits that humans have met throughout our history in this area.
History and Food
Before the English settlers laid their claim on this region, the New England area was inhabited by Native peoples. At this time, the Native peoples obtained food solely from what was available in the surrounding environment. Across New England Native people “foraged seasonally for nuts, tubers, berries, and on the coast, the occasional stranded whale. They hunted deer waterfowl, and other game and harvested freshwater and saltwater shellfish and fish, including migrating herring and salmon” (Donahue et al, 2014: 4). When the English started to populate the area, they brought with them different cultural values towards food, and in most cases, viewed the food that the natives ate as second-class and were slow to adopt a lot of what was available to them into their diets, with the exception of when they faced food shortages (Stayley, 2004: 89). Through a historical analysis of the food eaten by both the Native peoples and the English settlers as well as the value that each group placed on the foods in the coastal New England region provides a very strong explanation for food culture in early history.
Native peoples used the marine ecosystems to their advantage before the arrival of the English settlers, they would gather fish and shellfish year-round (Stayley, 2004: 77). There is archeological evidence to show that Native peoples roasted or baked clams in oysters in shallow round pits usually lined with seaweed as a way of creating steam and heat so that the shellfish would open (Stayley, 2004: 78) However when the settlers arrived they took an entirely new perspective on these resources. It is a commonly known story that the early English Settlers had a very difficult time surviving the harsh winters due to food scarcity. This issue also occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; the settlers came over with their own set of ideas for what foods were considered acceptable based on their culture and the added: “Indian enthusiasm for clams [and other fish and shellfish] undoubtedly lowered their value in the English eyes” (Stayley, 2004: 89). As a result, there have been reports where, “with frequent periods of food scarcity in the early years of New England, the association of fish-eating with bad times was only strengthened (Stayley, 2004: 77). In a statement made by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, John Winthrop discussing the period of food scarcity in 1642, he lamented the fact that during this time, “many families were forced to live off clams, mussels and dry fish” (Stayley, 2004: 77).
After about a hundred years of the English settlers only eating shellfish out of necessity, they slowly began to be appreciated and adopted into New England cuisine while retaining their old associations with sustenance. In 1829, Lyndia Maria Child presented them in her cookbook as an “inexpensive everyday fare”, creating a recipe for boiled clams consisting of nothing but clams and water (Stayley, 2004: 90). Slowly, the reputation of shellfish began to improve and traditions of clambakes began to develop, however, clams were still considered a “recreational shellfish, appropriate for clambakes and other casual affairs, and not a food to offer guests at an important meal” (Stayley, 2004: 95). Finally, on July 3, 1916 the fried clam was invented by Lawrence ‘Chubby’ Woodman in Essex, MA and the dish has been a staple of New England culture and cuisine ever since (New England Historical Society, 2019). Now, clamming has turned into a significant industry, and to the people of the Cape Ann region, it provides economic survival (Harris, 2014).
Fishing also gradually became the first significant industry in New England as the years progressed. The early Native practices of groundfishing were quickly adopted by settlers who then adapted it to be more efficient, employing larger boats and more extensive fishing gear (NOAA, 2019). From the 1600s through the 1800s this fishing industry took off in the New England area, particularly the markets for mackerel and cod (Donahue et al, 2014, 5). From 1860 to 1910, fishing fleets expanded, landing millions of fish, creating a boom in the associated shipbuilding and fish processing businesses (Donahue et al., 2014: 6). Fishing was not only just an economic opportunity for coastal New England, in its early years, the maritime culture was also developed with importance placed upon “organized social drinking” (Stayley, 2004: 74). Like the clamming industry, the fishing industry transitioned from low-level food eaten only in times of struggle, to a booming industry that has created strong cultural and economic significance for the area (Tower, 1911: 284).
A third early source of food that has persisted since the Native peoples inhabited coastal New England are game animals such as deer, turkey, rabbit, and pheasant. Before the settlers arrived, Native peoples obtained fresh meat from “hunting the animals in their environment” which is what made up the majority of their diet (Stayley, 2004: 150). When arriving in New England, the settlers were again, not keen on this type of food because if its association with Native life (Stayley, 2004: 150). Even though the English had a “previous association with hunting and venison with the aristocracy”, because the act of hunting wild game was associated with Native peoples, they initially did not want anything to do with it. However, hunting did end up being quickly adopted because it was the most familiar way of obtaining food based off of their previous cultural views. In addition, it would have been very difficult to obtain any substantive food if the game, fish, and shellfish were all out of the picture.
Going forward, hunting was considered a very normal way of getting food, however, as livestock animals were quickly introduced back into New England culture, this practice became less of a necessity. Today, game animals like deer are considered pests and require hunting to keep the populations down for the survival of the forests (Donahue et al, 2014: 23). At present, the New England deer herd is about 600,000, with an annual harvest of only about 75,000 (Donahue et al, 2014: 23).
The final food source I researched is cultivated land in the New England area. Before the Settlers arrived, Native peoples mainly foraged for things like berries, nuts, and tubers and used a three-sister cropping method to grow and cultivate corn, beans, and squash. Upon arrival, the Settlers had a very different idea of what their crop production would look like which is what we see today in areas of New England that are still being farmed. In fact, America’s oldest working farm is in Ipswich, MA and the land continues to be farmed today (“Appleton Farms”, 2020). The farm was established in 1638 by Samuel Appleton for growing vegetables, corn, and hay and eventually expanded into beef and dairy (“Appleton Farms”, 2020). For the most part, early colonial farming was aimed at “household subsistence and exchange with neighbors” and typically did not expand past that point (Donahue et al, 2014: 5). Current New England food production follows a similar trend, food production has significantly declined in this region (Donahue et al, 2014: 7). Today, the only major sources of farming are dairy production in Vermont, cranberries in Massachusetts, and blueberries in Maine (Donahue et al, 2014: 7).
My Family and Food
Food and the culture surrounding it changed in a very interesting and rapid way as settlers came to the New England area. In the beginning, food was based on survival although these settlers did not want to associate themselves with the practices of the Native Peoples they had no choice, otherwise they would not be able to survive during times of food scarcity. From this struggle, a culture of foods native to this area began to develop as time went on. My own family has lived through generations where food was scarce and have in some ways mirrored historical development in terms of our relationship to food and how we utilize and view the food that is available in our surroundings, especially during times of economic hardship.
Following the history on my father’s side of the family back to 1942 when my grandfather was born. At this time, living in a rural area of Massachusetts money for fresh groceries was difficult to come by. So my grandfather learned how to hunt, garden, fish, and raise animals. Unlike the picky settlers of New England, there was no discrimination of what food was to be eaten due to cultural reasons. My grandfather learned at a very young age to use what was available in his surrounding environments to feed himself. He was practically raised outside, learning how to hunt shoot and skin animals, fishing, and gardening.
Fast forward to when my father and his siblings were born. Hunting and growing food was less of a necessity due to economic stability. By this time, my grandfather owned land as well as a machine shop in town, but he continued to hunt, fish, grow vegetables, and raise animals as more of a hobby than a necessity for food. He believed that it was very important for my father and uncle to learn these skills, so they spent their childhoods following him around and learning how to use what was provided by the surrounding environment to their advantage. Over time my father really grew to appreciate the areas diverse and abundant ecosystems and stayed in the New England area when he moved out of the house. Moving to a Ipswich, MA which is a culmination of the dense and diverse forest, streams, and agricultural land he was used to with the addition of the ocean and tidal zones that provide a second layer of local food potential.
In Ipswich, my father maintains hobbies such as open water fishing, shellfishing, clamming, hunting and gardening all in one area. At present, the use of hunted and fished foods has become more of a special treat in our family given that time is a significant factor in enjoying these foods. Since my father was able to go to college and has had a full-time job since, these activities have really become a hobby and a luxury that he enjoys when he has time to do so. My family now considers things like steamed clams, fresh oysters, fish, and meat luxury items that we enjoy on special occasions and that we share with people, unlike the early settlers who considered this type of fare simple, or second class.
Flash forward to the current 2020 pandemic, the local food items that we just a few months ago considered as a special treat may soon become a necessity as there are now per person limits to meat and fish in grocery stores. The upside to this situation is that, with the stay at home orders that accompany the pandemic, my family has more time to pursue these activities of hunting and producing our own food should grocery store food continue to be restricted. Since my family has more time to use the resources available to us, we have begun to expand our garden in order to produce more fresh food which can be scarce in the grocery stores. And my father and brother have more time to pursue fishing, shellfishing and hunting.
Looking back at my family’s history and values towards food living in coastal New England and mirroring it with the experience of the Native peoples and the English Settlers, it is clear that there is a place for people to use the local game land, fisheries, and fertile soil as a way of potentially combatting food security in this region. Inhabitants of coastal New England have been able to use this area’s diverse and abundant ecosystems as a source of food security for hundreds of years. With this current pandemic, people in this area have the opportunity to use these ecosystems and the food that they provide to improve their own food security.
Knowing the Limits
Between what I have discovered about colonial New England as well as my family’s own skills of hunting and fishing that have been developed over the years that could prove useful in this pandemic, the values and lessons learned from past years of dealing with food shortages and overfishing cannot go undiscussed. For example, many people worry that our agricultural food system will fail during the pandemic so they are turning to home gardening again to that resemble the victory gardens during World War I (Rao, 2020). The gardening people are doing today in an attempt to “build their own community-based food security” are similar to the colonial gardens that were meant to be a source of subsistence for households and their neighbors (Rao, 2020).
Another lesson to be learned from the colonial struggle with food security is the limits of the environment. Overfishing is the best example of exceeding the limits of the environment. As previously mentioned, mackerel and cod were the most sought after fish in the industry. However, when the fishing industry began to take off, the Atlantic cod, specifically, was fished to near extinction. This not only hurt the food supply but the overexploitation of the fisheries cause the fishing industry to shrink and it became difficult to “support historical fishing community such as Gloucester and New Bedford, Massachusetts” (NOAA, 2019). With the disappearance of many fish species the need to “reduce the impact of the food system on the environment” became urgent (Godfray, 2010: 812). This resulted in this creation of limits to the amount that a company or individual can harvest from the fisheries at a given time. For example, my family’s fishing license restricts us to two fish of at least 32 inches a day as well as regulations on what type of fishing equipment we are allowed to use. It has taken several decades for the Atlantic Cod to just begin to repopulate the area, which is not a mistake that should be made twice given what is now know about the limits to these environments.
A third, more relevant lesson is happening now to the clam populations in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts. Due to varied environmental conditions as well as the gradual overfishing of these clams, the availability of clams in the area has been dwindling (Harris, 2014). The gradual decline of this resource has resulted in economic repercussions for those who dig clams for a living. Similar to the fishing industry, permits have been issued determining the maximum number of clams a person can dig depending on if they have a commercial or a recreational license, there is also a size requirement for the clams that you can collect. If a clam is under a certain length it has to go back, and if you are found with “illegal” sized clams you will be issued a fine. The same is true for deer and turkey populations in the area although there is less of a concern over underpopulation for those species.
The New England area has continued to provide excellent resources for the people living in the region to obtain food security. As exemplified by the history of settlers in this region, in times of food insecurity, it was the local food produced by the regions abundant ecosystems that got them through. Although these foods were only considered essential to survival and would not have been acceptable; otherwise, they were slowly adopted into the diets and food culture of the settlers. In the case of my own family, food obtained from our surroundings as always been valued, whether it be through a matter of necessity, a hobby, or considered a luxury. It has always been an important part of my family’s culture to be able to obtain food from the surrounding environment. In the face of this current pandemic, it is important to note that those much like my family who value and appreciate the food sources that are available in this region as a way of not only improving food security but as a way of providing mental clarity in these difficult times through tasks like hunting, fishing or gardening. Finally, since people will be turning to their surroundings for sources of food, the lessons that can be learned from past periods of overfishing and overharvesting are extremely important to consider in order to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
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