I don’t always get excited about the turkey part of Thanksgiving. But, that wasn’t actually the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal that the first settlers ate. It likely included wild game like deer and wild birds (including turkey) along with vegetables like corn and squash. But, it also likely included as much seafood as it did meat. Many types of seafood were abundant and accessible to harvest, making this a major component of the diet of early colonists.

As Edward Winslow, governor of the Plymouth Bay Colonies, wrote in one account, “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors.”

Early settlers ate a great variety of seafood including many types that are still popular today, although sometimes more often outside of Thanksgiving. Lobster, for example, was very abundant and could be harvested by hand right along the shore. Now, lobsters are caught in traps, not by hand, but are certainly a staple of the modern Maine seafood diet. A variety of finfish species including cod and haddock would also have been eaten. They would have been caught using hand lines from small wooden rowboats or dories. Some handlining or longlining for these species still happens, but they are now more likely to be caught in nets set a bit further from shore.

Shellfish were a traditional part of the diet of early colonists as well. Clams could be hand dug from the mud in much the same way they are still harvested today. At that point in time, there were also extensive mussel beds along the shore and the mussels could be picked right off the rocks. There are still wild mussels in Maine now, but not to the extent that they used to be here. Now, the majority of Maine mussels are aquacultured, typically growing on ropes hanging from floating rafts in the ocean. A combination of factors including overharvesting and predation by green crabs has reduced the mussel population by more than half over the last 50 or so years.

Oysters would also have been hand-picked off the rocks. Similar to mussels, the wild population of oysters is not what it used to be and the majority of oysters coming from Maine are now farmed. These are most often grown in cages attached to rafts floating at the surface.

One type of seafood that was a common food source for early colonists and isn’t so popular in the United States today were eels. They would have been collected using nets or weirs in much the same way they are harvested today. Today, adult eels are still harvested, but the focus is on the elver, or glass eel fishery, which targets small juveniles that are popular in Asian countries. That’s where many of them go. They are shipped overseas to be grown out in ponds to reach adult size.

Lobster, cod, haddock, mussels, oysters, clams, and eel would all likely have been part of the first Thanksgiving meal. Now, the modern Thanksgiving meal hardly includes any seafood. Instead, there is the headliner turkey with stuffing and cranberries and often some kind of squash or pumpkin, maybe in the form of a pie. So, why isn’t there seafood? It’s not because there isn’t still wonderful, abundant seafood in Maine. You can still find all of the species the settlers ate, whether they are wild-caught or farmed. The lack of seafood in most Thanksgiving feasts today has more to do with the promotion of Thanksgiving as a National Holiday and the fact that if you lived in North Dakota, for example, you couldn’t have fresh seafood on your Thanksgiving table. Instead, easier to source options were highlighted, including turkey.

The establishment and promotion of the Thanksgiving Holiday was back in the 1860s, however, when seafood was not commonly shipped across the country. Now that seafood can be shipped across the country and the globe, perhaps it is time to add more seafood to the modern Thanksgiving menu. Aside from shipping fresh or frozen seafood, there is also the option to use smoked seafood — a preparation that would have also been used by early colonists who didn’t have the option to refrigerate or freeze their catch.

Canned seafood provides an easy and affordable option to add a little seafood to your Thanksgiving menu. Smoked oysters are part of an old-time New England stuffing recipe and are easy to find regardless of where you live. Similarly, canned clams can be turned into a simple creamy clam dip that can be served with warm bread or vegetables as a tasty appetizer. If you can get fresh clams, stuffed quahogs are a simple appetizer. They are known as “stuffies” in Rhode Island and sometimes include linguica sausage, an incorporation of the cuisine of the Portuguese heritage there. Or, you can whip up a seafood chowder using just about any type of seafood, even adding a bit of corn to use some traditional produce. And, of course, you can reshape the feast to feature lobster rather than turkey.

Regardless of what you have on your Thanksgiving table today, remember the traditions of seafood in the early Thanksgiving menu and celebrate today’s abundant seafood harvest in Maine and our opportunity to incorporate it into our meal.

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