Thursday, June 11, 2009

Creatures of Empire (Part 1)

Americans are known for their meat-eating, especially for their fondness of beef and pork. While we are fascinated with our history in terms of early human colonists, we have neglected the history of early animal colonists. Embarking to the American colonies, the English brought a number of items that reflected their culture, among them livestock.

In her magnificent book Creatures of Empire, Virginia Dejohn Anderson seeks to tell this story. As I journeyed through this book I learned a number of fascinating details about the history of two items I dearly love: my country and my livestock.

It today's society, it is easy to forget the folklores and superstitutions that once abounded in English cultures. While protestant power was keen on surpressing these beliefs, certain animals did have mystical attributes for the ordinary Englishman. They believed that satan might come disguised as a goat, hogs could see the wind, and that owls could portend death. We have all pause if we see a black cat crossing our path, but in early English settlements, they took it seriously.

Early colonists in Maryland had a difficult time clearing stumps from fields, and usually didn't. This made the use of livestock for plowing infeasible, so they became more a source of meat and less a source of labor. The scarce fields and plentiful forests made it more profitable to simply turn animals loose into the forests and let them find their own food. Sheep and goat had a difficult time, and thus cattle, hogs, and chickens became the most popular livestock type. History has a lingering affect; perhaps that is why we eat so little lamb and goat today?

At first I thought that might be a good guess, but then I read later in the book that New England settlements specialized in sheep. Winters were tough, and many were ill-clothed, so they did everything they could to encourage sheep and wool production. They even created laws against the sheering of sheep until they were a certain age, to make sure it had been sheered at least twice.

So, why don't we eat much sheep today? A friend of mine thinks it is Hitler's fault. U.S. soldiers during World War II ate can after can of fatty mutton, and sheep fat is not tasty like beef fat. When they returned victorious to the U.S., they wanted nothing to do with sheep, even if it wasn't mutton. My friend says that if you look at sheep numbers, they take a dive after World War II.

While cattle in Maryland could survive from food in the forests, there was little forage per acre, so smaller animals were more efficient. Not long after the colonial settlements began, Englishmen remarked how much smaller cattle had become. Even until the mid 1900's U.S. cattle were small, and U.S. efforts to grow larger cattle required the importation of "European" cattle: Simmental, Charolais, etc.

more later...