Saturday, November 25, 2023

History of the Turkey for Thanksgiving & Christmas Celebrations


An engraving from Audubon's painting of a hen with her poults, or chicks, circa 1827–30.

A Short History of the Turkey

Centuries before Christopher Columbus reached the New World, the Aztecs had domesticated a wild game bird that we call the turkey, but they called huexolotl. The turkey was so important to the Aztecs as a source of food that the Indians regarded the bird as a god. There were two religious festivals a year in the turkey's honor.

When the Spanish arrived in the earliest years of the sixteenth century, they were at a loss what to name the strange bird ...& settled on calling it "a kind of a peacock with great hanging chins." The bird's reputation for delicious, fine-textured flesh & distinguished plumage, as well as a comical appearance, was soon talked about in the court circles of Madrid & Seville. Who sent the first birds back to Spain is unclear. Most likely, it was Columbus after his fourth transatlantic visit in 1502, when he visited Cape Honduras. 

Some historians say Hernando Cortes, the swashbuckling Spanish conquistador, deserves the credit. But Cortes began his Mexican adventures in 1519, eight years after King Ferdinand sent out instructions that every Spanish ship returning from the New World should bring back ten turkeys, "half males, & the other half females ...because I desire that there be bred here some cocks & hens of those which you have there & were brought from Tierra Firme."

There are two wild species of turkey, members of the pheasant family that evolved in the New World about eleven million years ago. The Ocellated turkey—Agriocharis ocellata—is native to the jungles of the Yucatan & Guatemala. The other, more familiar species is the granddaddy of all present-day gobblers—Meleagris gallopova—& ranged from southeastern Canada to Mexico. Like pheasant & grouse, wild turkeys can burst into a short flight that clocks up to 55 miles per hour. On the ground they are no slouches either, running at up to 30 miles per hour. But turkeys are bred nowadays for brawn, not speed. 

Like the Aztecs to the south, the North American Indian tribes regarded the turkey as a powerful spiritual symbol. They prized its breast feathers as an alternative to goose down for warm winter cloaks. Southwestern tribes, believing the turkey to be the guide that ushered the dead into the next world, buried their loved ones in turkey-feather robes. 

But with the advent of the Europeans, the turkey's prospects turned. They were still revered—but now as an easily obtained meal. Early reports talk of hunters shooting 100 birds in a day—day after day...

The spread of the delectable turkey around Europe quickly followed its introduction into Spain. England gawked at its first turkey in the 1520s—introduced, it is said, by William Strickland of East Yorkshire after a visit to the New World with John Cabot. In later life, Strickland's perspicacity appears to have been honored with the award of a grant of arms—a family crest—that sported a heraldic "turkey-bird in his pride proper." 

As elsewhere in Europe, the bird proved a great hit in England. Hitherto, the high-end feathered diet of English aristocrats had included such tough & chewy morsels as cormorants, swans, cranes, herons, storks, & another, now critically endangered bird known as the Great Bustard...

According to Thomas Tusser's 1570 Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, turkey meat was now part & parcel of England's Christmas celebrations, at least for the well off. Such was the demand, that farmers from Norfolk, eighty or more miles distant, would drive their thousand-strong turkey flocks to market in London on foot, reportedly creating the first traffic jams on the streets of the English capital...

By 1541 eating turkey was so popular that when Thomas Cranmer, the Church of England's top archbishop, introduced a sumptuary law to restrict the consumption of meat dishes by his underlings, turkey was on the hit list. He said "of the greater fishes or fowles, there should be but one in a dish, as crane, swan, turkeycocke, haddocke, pyke, tench."

In Italy, the Venetian senate passed similar laws to curtail excessive feasting, & turkey—this time along with pigeon—was outlawed. But the Venetians did not take kindly to being told what not to eat & apparently continued to evade the law by carving the birds in secret & making enormous pies with the meat. One similar, monster English pie made in the northern cathedral city of Durham was touted as having used up 100 turkeys in the making.

The turkey's European invasion was virtually complete by 1560. The novelty of the birds made them status symbols for the rich & famous. With European nobility fond of turning their estates into zoological extravaganzas, all manner of exotic birds & beasts were sent home from the New World, & what more intriguing species to join the now passé Indian peacock than a strutting, gobbling turkey-cock? Particularly if you had not seen one before...

Put there were questions about what to call it. Once the bird began to strut its stuff across the European continent, every different language settled on a different name. The result was a muddle. Adding to the confusion was that people mistook the word for "turkey" as referring to the equally odd-looking guinea-fowl that were being imported from West Africa about the same period. The French called the turkey coq d'Inde, meaning rooster of India. This was shortened to dinde—the modern French word for turkey—but as we know, it did not come from India.

Columbus had sown the seeds of geographic confusion with his assessment that the New World was India. Nevertheless, the name-that-bird quest did not end there. In Arabic, the turkey was called the Ethiopian bird; to the Lebanese—the Abyssinian cock; the Portuguese called it the Peru bird, though there never was a turkey in that country either; in Greek it went by the name gallopoula, or French girl. Presumably, the Greeks got their first turkeys from the French. But it gets curiouser. In Malay, a turkey is ayam belanda, or Dutch chicken, though the Dutch & the Germans call it a Calicut chicken, after a southwest Indian seaport; & to cap it all, the Turks call the bird hindi...

Two hundred years later, when the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus tried to classify the turkey & its relatives in the natural scheme of things, he did not get it right either. He cobbled together the Latin name Meleagris gallopova. Well, meleagris is a guinea fowl, gallus is a chicken, & pova is a peacock—a mishmash if ever there was one. All in all, the turkey had Linnaeus stumped.

But how did the English-speaking world make the mistake of calling a North American bird a turkey when everyone else was heading off in the direction of India, Peru, or Ethiopia? The first explanation was that Columbus called it "turkey" after the noise it makes: tuka, tuka. Similarly, North American Indians supposedly called it turkey after the sound they thought it made—firkee—though it seems a stretch from firkee to gobble-gobble. It has also been suggested that Luis de Torres, a doctor who sailed with Columbus, called the bird tukki, which in Hebrew means "big bird."

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that English traders who specialized in trading with the Ottoman Empire, which included Turkey, were called Turkey merchants, & they had tasted roast turkey in Spain or Portugal on their way to & from the eastern Mediterranean. With an eye to a profit, the traders brought birds back to England, augmenting those introduced by Strickland. But the name turkey stuck.

When the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620, along with livestock that reportedly included some domesticated turkeys, it didn't take them long to realize that the wheel had turned full circle, & the native birds they admired & hunted were distant cousins of their own domestic turkeys.

Of all the hallowed stories of the Pilgrim fathers, the most venerable is that of their Thanksgiving dinner—particularly the turkey...But sad to say there is no real evidence that turkey was on the menu that day.

Colonist Edward Winslow wrote:  Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, & amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained & feasted, & they went out & killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation & bestowed on our Governour, & upon the Captaine & others.

No mention of turkeys, except in an ambiguous account written years later by the governor, William Bradford, who makes no specific connection between the turkey & the 1621 festivities. He wrote: They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, & to fitte up their houses & dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, & had all things in good plenty; ffor as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. & now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c.

Bradford had "sent four men fowling" to find food, but whether they returned with turkey to grace their table is not clear. It hardly matters. The tradition is still revered, & turkey is still served. Only nowadays, there is little doubt about what it is we are eating.

By Andrew Gardner,  Christmas 2005 edition of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.