Native Americans Feasted Some But Mostly Fasted

“There are to be found, among us, a few strong men and women — the remnant of a by-gone generation, much healthier than our own — who can eat at random, as the savages do, and yet last on, as here and there a savage does, to very advanced years. But these random-shot eaters are, at most, but exceptions to the general rule, which requires regularity.”
~William Andrus Alcott, 1859

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll, pp. 12-14

Encountering the tribal peoples of North America, European explorers and settlers found themselves forced to question an institution they had long taken for granted: the meal. “[They] have no such thing as set meals breakfast, dinner or supper,” remarked explorer John Smith. Instead of eating at three distinct times every day, natives ate when their stomachs cued them, and instead of consuming carefully apportioned servings, they gleaned a little from the pot here and there. English colonists deplored this unstructured approach. They believed in eating according to rules and patterns—standards that separated them from the animal world. But when it came to structure, colonists were hardly in a position to boast. Though they believed in ordered eating, their meals were rather rough around the edges, lacking the kind of organization and form that typifies the modern meal today. Hardly well defined or clean-cut, colonial eating occasions were messy in more ways than one. Perhaps this partially explains why explorers and colonists were so quick to criticize native eating habits—in doing so, they hid the inconsistencies in their own. 3

Colonists found Native American eating habits wanting because they judged them by the European standard. For Europeans, a meal combined contrasting components—usually cereals, vegetables, and animal protein. Heat offered an additional desirable contrast. Swedish traveler Peter Kalm noted that many “meals” consumed by the natives of the mid-Atlantic, where he traveled in the mid-eighteenth century, consisted simply of “[maple] sugar and bread.” With only two ingredients and a distinct lack of protein, not to mention heat, this simplistic combination fell short of European criteria; it was more of a snack. Other typical nonmeals included traveling foods such as nocake (pulverized parched cornmeal to which natives added water on the go) and pemmican (a dense concoction of lean meat, fat, and sometimes dried berries). Hunters, warriors, and migrants relied on these foods, designed to be eaten in that particularly un-meal-like way in which John Williams ate his frozen meat on his journey to Québec: as the stomach required it and on the go. 4

Jerked venison and fat, chewed as one traversed the wilderness, was not most colonists’ idea of a proper meal, and if natives’ lack of sufficient contrasting components and the absence of a formal eating schedule puzzled colonists, even more mystifying was natives’ habit of going without meals, and often without any food at all, for extended periods. Jesuit missionary Christian LeClercq portrayed the Micmac of the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada as a slothful people, preserving and storing only a token winter’s supply: “They are convinced that fifteen to twenty lumps of meat, or of fish dried or cured in the smoke, are more than enough to support them for the space of five to six months.” LeClercq and many others did not realize that if natives went hungry, they did so not from neglect but by choice. Fasting was a subsistence strategy, and Native Americans were proud of it. 5

Throughout the year, Native Americans prepared for times of dearth by honing their fasting skills. They practiced hunger as a kind of athletic exercise, conditioning their bodies for the hardships of hunting, war, and seasonal shortages. According to artist George Catlin, the Mandan males in what are now the Dakotas “studiously avoided . . . every kind of excess.” An anthropologist among the Iroquois observed that they were “not great eaters” and “seldom gorged themselves.” To discourage gluttony, they even threatened their children with a visit from Sago’dakwus, a mythical monster that would humiliate them if it caught them in the act of overeating. 6

Native and European approaches to eating came to a head in the vice of gluttony. Many tribal peoples condemned overeating as a spiritual offense and a practice sure to weaken manly resolve and corrupt good character. Europeans also condemned it, largely for religious reasons, but more fundamentally because it represented a loss of control over the animal instincts. In the European worldview, overindulgence was precisely the opposite of civility, and the institution of the meal guarded against gluttony and a slippery descent into savagery. The meal gave order to and set boundaries around the act of eating, boundaries that Europeans felt native practices lacked. As explorers and colonists defended the tradition of the meal, the institution took on new meaning. For them, it became a subject of pride, serving as an emblem of civilization and a badge of European identity. 7

Europeans viewed Native Americans largely as gluttons. Because whites caught only fleeting glimpses of the complex and continually shifting lives of Native Americans, they were liable to portray the native way of life according to a single cultural snapshot, which, when it came to food, was the posthunt feast. It was well known that natives ate much and frequently during times of abundance. John Smith recorded that when natives returned from the hunt with large quantities of bear, venison, and oil, they would “make way with their provision as quick as possible.” For a short time, he explained, “they have plenty and do not spare eating.” White witnesses popularized the image of just such moments of plenty as typical. 8

Although Native Americans were hardly gluttons, Europeans, fascinated by the idea of a primitive people with a childlike lack of restraint, embraced the grossly inaccurate stereotype of the overeating Indian. William Wood portrayed the natives of southern New England as gorging themselves “till their bellies stand forth, ready to split with fullness.” A decidedly strange Anglo-American amusement involved watching Native Americans relish a meal. “Why,” asked George Catlin, “[is it] that hundreds of white folks will flock and crowd round a table to see an Indian eat?” With a hint of disappointment, William Wood recorded the appetites of tribes people invited to an English house to dine as “very moderate.” Wood was uncertain whether to interpret this reserve as politeness or timidity, but clearly he and his fellow English spectators had not expected shy and tempered eaters. 9

One culture’s perception of another often says more about the perceiver than the perceived. Although settlers lambasted natives for gluttony, whites may have been the real gluttons. According to more than one observer, many a native blushed at Europeans’ bottomless stomachs. “The large appetites of white men who visited them were often a matter of surprise to the Indians who entertained them,” wrote a nineteenth-century folklorist among the Iroquois. Early anthropologist Lewis Morgan concluded that natives required only about one-fifth of what white men consumed, and he was skeptical of his own ability to survive on such a paucity of provisions. 10

Through their criticisms, exaggerations, and stereotypes, colonists distanced themselves from a population whose ways appeared savage and unenlightened, and the organized meal provided a touchstone in this clash of cultures. It became a yardstick by which Europeans measured culture and a weapon by which they defended their definition of it. They had long known what a meal was, but now, by contrast, they knew firsthand what it was not. Encountering the perceived meal-less-ness of the natives brought the colonists’ esteemed tradition into question and gave them an opportunity to confirm their commitment to their conventions. They refused to approve of, let alone adapt to, the loose foodways of Native Americans and instead embraced all the more heartily a structured, meal-centered European approach to eating.

4 thoughts on “Native Americans Feasted Some But Mostly Fasted

  1. This is a great post that highlights how even the most universal of daily tasks, eating, was criticized by whites as being animalistic and primitive. Native Americans could have draped napkins over their legs during meals and whites would have still called them savages. Their agenda was obviously to conquer, enslave and rape and that’s exactly what they did.
    “One culture’s perception of another often says more about the perceiver than the perceived.” I thought that was insightful and isn’t emphasized enough when reviewing history or modernity.

    • The tricky part about history is that it is mostly dependent on what people at the time wrote about themselves and others. But there were other groups that rarely wrote anything at all. So, we mostly know of Native Americans through what those of European ancestry said of them, often based only on brief encounters and immense bigotry.

      It doesn’t exactly allow for a clear perspective. One has to really dig into the records to get a sense of what was really going on with particular populations. Even then, most of the real world experience is permanently lost. Nonetheless, even just getting a hint of how different another society was is helpful, such as realizing how common was fasting for natives.

    • “they gleaned a little from the pot here and there”

      Nice post. As far as eating as the stomach cued, that’s something quite familiar, but I don’t understand what the above really means.

      What’s ironic here is the Europeans forgot that the Romans, their great ancestors, were magnificent gluttons.

      • I suspect I know what is meant by, “they gleaned a little from the pot here and there.” My mother talks about, in her childhood, how her family cooked a main meal and then left it out for everyone to eat at throughout the day and maybe the following day. It’s likely that Native Americans cooked up a big batch of something and then people “gleaned” from it until it was gone. Going by historical and anthropological records, it seems most humans generally only ate one meal a day until quite recent history, although there might’ve been some snacking if food was left over from the main meal. Even those early Americans complaining about the natives would’ve spent a fair amount of time in a fasted state. Prior to industrialization, most Americans just ate one main meal in the early afternoon.

        Essentially, that is the diet that was common prior to a dependable source of large amounts of carbs being available. For example, regular surplus yields of grains weren’t made possible until the agricultural advances in the 1800s. And before that only the wealthy could afford to eat wheat on a regular basis which means that white bread used to be rare in the human diet. A low-carb diet, especially if ketogenic, lowers hunger to a great degree. Unlike a high-carb diet, one doesn’t need to eat every few hours when one’s blood sugar crashes. Eating one meal a day wasn’t so much a choice based on ideology or culture. It simply was the natural result of a particular state of physiological functioning and metabolic health.

        Also, it was a practical issue. In hunter-gatherer societies, they ate when there was food and they didn’t eat when there wasn’t. This is why they tended to follow a pattern of feasting and fasting with an emphasis on the latter, and that definitely put them in ketosis most of the time. But even in agricultural societies, people weren’t going to be cooking meals all day long and they didn’t have stores to by read-made convenient snacks. They ate one meal a day generally because they only cooked once a day. Cooking made the house hot and created a mess. It wasn’t practical to cook three meals a day, at least not until industrialization.

        About the Romans, their gluttony probably is exaggerated. Certainly, the average Roman was not gluttonous. Even among the elite, there is no evidence that most of them gorged and purged, as is attributed to them later on. The emperors, for example, that supposedly ate in this way had their stories told as morality tales of what not to do, not as an examples of what most Romans were actually doing. Some historical evidence indicates that Romans, like most others, practice one meal a day (OMAD). It wasn’t until after the fall of the Roman Empire in the Middle Ages that there was any significant rise in the practice of eating breakfast. It was in the late Middle Ages, by the way, when modern agriculture began to take form.

        Besides, until the modern era, most humans were too poor and the food system too limited to have lots of food available to eat all day, even if the masses weren’t also too busy working from sunrise to sunset. Eating multiple meals a day is a luxury few people experienced before modern industrialization. Most Romans, in particular, were malnourished and barely getting enough to eat at all. Rather than worrying about multiple meals, they were worrying about getting a single meal a day or else be forced to fast. But even for many people who could afford to eat more, they chose not to. Among the Roman elite, it was considered civilized to only eat one large meal a day, but maybe that was part of the reputation of ‘gluttony’ since it was a large meal. The Spartan warriors followed the same diet of one large meal and they weren’t known as gluttonous. Ori Hofmekler writes about this in The Warrior Diet.

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