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The Marginalian

How the Eel Almost Became America’s Thanksgiving Food

How the Eel Almost Became America’s Thanksgiving Food

We habitually underestimate just how much chance and choice converge to make us who we are, as individuals and as cultures.

In the midsummer of 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England for America with 102 desperate optimists aboard seeking refuge from religious persecution in the New World, along with about thirty crew. By the time it dropped anchor at Cape Cod ten grueling weeks later, the inhospitable conditions of New England winter and the hostility of the local tribes forced the pilgrims to remain aboard for weeks in their ramshackle floating hostel. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and scurvy soon broke out among this small nation, captive and malnourished. By the time spring arrived, nearly half of them were dead. When the survivors finally ventured ashore in March, they knew nothing about where to hunt, which plants were safe to eat, or how to slake their thirst with potable water.

That is when they met Tisquantum — also known as Squanto — and their fate took a propitious turn.

Tisquantum returning one of the pilgrims’ lost children. Art from the 1922 children’s book Good Stories for Great Birthdays.

Patrik Svensson tells the story in The Book of Eels (public library) — that wondrous journey into the science and myth of Earth’s most mysterious creature:

A member of the Patuxet tribe, [Tisquantum] had been captured by the English years earlier, taken to Spain, and sold as a slave, before managing to escape to England, where he learned the language. Eventually, he boarded a ship back to North America, only to find that his entire tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic probably brought by the English.

And yet, despite the fate he and his people had suffered in colonial hands, he saw the individuals beyond the group identity and came to the pilgrims’ rescue — something a Christian might call turning the other cheek, and a rationalist might simply call kindness. Svensson writes:

One of the first things he did was gift them an armful of eels. After their very first meeting, Tisquantum went down to the river, and “at night, he came home with as many eels as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of,” noted one of the pilgrims in a diary later sent back to England. “They were fat & sweet, he trod them out with his feete, and so caught them with his hands without any other Instrument.” It was a gift from God in their hour of need, the salvation they had never stopped praying for.

Before long, Tisquantum had taught the pilgrims how to catch eels and where to find them. He also gave them corn and taught them how to cultivate it; he showed them where they could find wild vegetables and fruits and advised them on how and where to hunt. Not least, he helped them communicate with the local natives and was key to negotiating the peace agreement that was pivotal to the lost Englishmen’s future in America.

Art from the world’s first color encyclopedia of marine life (1719), partway between natural history and myth. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

When the first anniversary of dropping anchor arrived in November 1621, the pilgrims made a holiday of it — the first original holiday of this seedling nation — and called it Thanksgiving: an expression of their gratitude for the generosity with which this new land had ultimately welcomed them, and for the lavish supply of fresh eel they had feasted on night after night.

With an eye to the myriad conspiracies of chance and choice, and to the silent biases that pock even the most grateful heart, Svensson reflects:

It would have made complete sense for the eel to have become an important figure in American mythology, a fat, shiny symbol of the promised land, the gift that sealed what was preordained. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps because the eel’s nature doesn’t lend itself well to solemn symbolism. Perhaps because it soon became associated with the simple eating habits of the poor rather than with feast days. Perhaps also because the gift had come from a native man.

For some reason, this gift from God to the early pilgrims has been all but erased from the grand narrative. The story of the colonization of North America is full of myths and legends, but the story of the eel isn’t one of them. On Thanksgiving, Americans eat turkey, not eel, and other animals — buffalo, eagles, horses — have been the ones to shoulder the symbolic weight of the patriotic narrative of the United States of America.

One of the most maddening facets of human nature is that, under the fetishism of self-reliance — itself a byproduct of the delusion of the separate self — we are always ambivalent about our saviors. Ungrudging gratitude may be one of the hardest moral triumphs for the human animal. In some parallel universe of possibility, there is sustainably fished eel on the Thanksgiving table and Tisquantum on a hundred-dollar bill.

But meanwhile, in this universe, we have the chance to tell an untold story over turkey.

Published November 20, 2022




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