North American Diet


The dietary culture
Early travelers to North America, such as explorers, missionaries and fur traders around the Great Lakes at the border of Canada and the US, were impressed by the beauty and abundance of a plant they found there. This was "wild rice," not a true rice plant properly speaking, yet one that grew in water and tasted like rice. It was a staple for Amerindian people like the Ojibway, and for very good reasons. Together with its complement of starch, it contained more protein than rice or maize (11 vs 7 percent), B vitamins and minerals like zinc-all important nutrients for the human organism.

But Eskimos and some Amerindians of early N America lived mostly from hunting and fishing. Yet they had evolved a dietary culture that allowed them to cure even scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, by using the bark of the maritime pine. This was long before Captain Lind discovered the curative effects of citrus fruits, or these had been transported to North America. Many of the foods of the Pilgrim Fathers were clearly of local origin.

Foods and dishes
Thus hominy was coarsely ground ripe maize boiled with water, and sometimes with milk, no different from East African posho, or South African "mealy meal." Succotash was a dish of green maize kernels cooked together with beans, and salt pork if it could be found. Cornpone was a thick unleavened maize pancake, which had to make do for wheat bread.

Other local east-coast delicacies were shad, a deep-bellied fish that ascended rivers to find places to spawn like salmon, much esteemed as food; terrapin, species of sweet water and salt-marsh tortoise; and of course the great schools of cod fish that skirted the banks of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, a fish well-known from Europe's North Sea. And for a change, there was always that great turkey bird, which later became the indispensable sacrifice for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For a sweetener they had maple syrup, probably one of the finest food sweeteners known to man. The local people tapped the maple trees in the early spring when the sap began circulating again, and when there was snow on the ground they let the sap drip on the snow for a frozen sweet-an erstwhile popsicle. They got vitamin C from cranberries, some species of which grow wild in eastern N America, and which also contain benzoic acid, a compound that can often prevent urinary tract infections by rendering the urine acidic.

The European settlement
Later, when the European settlers started moving westwards, the principal protein and fat came from the great herds of bison. Shooting for the pot became customary, and since bisons pack a lot of fine meat, everyday meat eating became the rule. The meat was accompanied by potatoes, maize on the cob or otherwise prepared, perhaps sunchokes, also called Jerusalem artichokes, and of course the great variety of local beans, such as butter, "French," haricot, kidney, lima beans and others. For salads and sauces there were tomatoes and green, red and yellow peppers. For herbs and spices they had bee balm, a wild herb some called bergamot, because of its similar taste and scent to the bergamot orange. They also used it to make Oswego tea. Other herbs from the same family were horsemint, another lemon-scented variety and still others.

Together with these native American foods, many of which had come from the south, settlers brought over some of their own. But the established practice of eating meat everyday, accompanied by potatoes and corn, both foreign foods for the settlers with high glycemic indeces, and using corn oil as the principal kitchen fat, would seem like a scenario for unmitigated disaster to a modern nutritionist.

Lean meat and exercise
This was not to be the case for a number of reasons. First, bison meat had little fat, compared with the domesticated animals the settlers ate in the countries they came from. The animal fats they got from the game they hunted, was not enough to do them any harm. But neither was that of the free ranging animals they raised. Then the settlers had a lot more exercise than is customary in our society, because they had to contend with a new land, and in many cases harsh environmental conditions.

When they did settle somewhere, they raised crops naturally and ate their products in their natural season, not from a supermarket shelf. Therefore, they had the benefit of all the nutrients contained in these foods, and not only these that could survive processing, heat treatment, and a long shelf life.

Clambake and barbecue
The settlers in time learned and adopted many foods and eating habits from the local inhabitants. And together with these, two distinct ways of food preparation. One is the traditional clambake. The local Indians dug a pit at the seashore, lined it with flat stones and lit a fire there. When the stones were well heated, they cleared the fire and placed a bed of seaweed on them. On top of it went alternate layers of clams and ears of corns, with more intermediate seaweed beds. Finally, the pit was covered with some cloth or hide, and moistened at regular intervals for the time it took to bake.

The other was a way of smoking and roasting meat. Many fugitives from justice found refuge on the sparsely settled northern part of the Island of Hispaniola, what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This part of the island was rife with cattle and pigs more or less abandoned by the early settlers, which suited the outcasts fine as a food base. The still remaining Caribs taught them how to dry and smoke meat on green wood frames over animal bone fires, a technique they called boucan. The word passed into French as boucanier, which in turn gave the island outcasts the notorious name of buccaneers. In Spanish, of the other hand, the green wood frame was called barbacoa, and this seems the beginning of our own barbecue.