Every November, American restaurants order turkeys in order to prepare the nation’s traditional Thanksgiving feast. And while this large, flightless and somewhat strange-looking bird is now accepted as standard on the menu, it brings with it a long and sometimes forgotten heritage.
Turkeys are indigenous to the Americas. The wild turkey is a majestic, fast running bird — it can run up to 25 miles per hour over a short distance! Excavations at ancient sites indicate it was first domesticated around 10 BCE by Aztecs, who ate its meat and prized its iridescent feathers for elaborate ornamental headdresses.
According to surviving records, the food-loving Aztecs staged a turkey festival every 200 days and traded approximately 1,000 birds daily in their open air city markets.
By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, turkeys had become the staple meat of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America. Both Cortes and Columbus ate turkey and found the meat flavorful enough to take a few live birds back to Spain.
Within a short time turkeys were popular amongst the European aristocracy due to its rare and exotic nature. Prior to the discovery of the New World, European nobility had enjoyed peacock and pheasant as a status food, but both birds had a tough, stringy meat texture. Because turkeys offered a softer, more enjoyable texture, they soon replaced their showier feathered cousins.
By the 1500s, the British referred to the bird as turkeycock, but the true origin of the word is lost in time. In India a turkey is called tuka. Other linguistic authorities claim the name comes from the guttural sound turkeys make.
Surprising as it may be, when the Pilgrims sailed to North America in 1620, they actually took a few domesticated European turkeys with them aboard the Mayflower. These were, however, so different from the wild turkeys of the Americas, that they considered them two different kinds of birds.
The wild turkeys that the Pilgrims encountered in America were fast, sharp sighted and able to easily hear distant sounds. They ate seeds, berries, buds, grubs, little snakes, frogs and lizards. At night they were able to quickly fly a short distance into trees to roost.
Because such a bird was not easy to hunt, historians believe it was probably not served at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. Research indicates that the easier to catch geese, ducks, swans and passenger pigeons were most likely on the menu instead.
The popularity of turkeys grew throughout the colonial period. It was during this time that the phrase “talking turkey” appears in American English, referring to bartering a turkey for other goods. Today the phrase has come to mean a truthful conversation.
The turkey was so admired by the early Americans that no less than Benjamin Franklin proposed that the bird should be America’s national bird. He was deeply disappointed when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson firmly said no and chose instead the fierce soaring eagle.
Prior to the American Civil War, various communities held general harvest festivals. It was not until Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1860, and a weary President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, supported by the Union Clubs of Chicago, New York and Boston, brought the idea of Thanksgiving (and turkey eating) forward to a war-torn nation.
In the ensuing generation, thousands of hunters pursued the wild turkey so persistently that by 1930 there were fewer than 30,000 wild birds left in America.
As the clouds of war darkened over the U.S. in 1941, another president, Franklin Roosevelt, declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, so that amidst the fears of war America would remember its heritage of supportively gathering together.
During World War II (1941-1945), many American farmers received massive government contracts to raise turkeys as part of the effort to feed the millions of soldiers fighting in both Europe and Asia. As a result, many a hungry G.I. learned to enjoy turkey, even if it wasn’t Thanksgiving Day.
The returning soldiers brought their preference for turkey home with them and food companies noticed. Soon a variety of turkey cuts were available to chefs. American turkeys further won the day when ACF Master Chef Ferdinand Metz, and the USA Culinary Olympic Team, served an impressive Stuffed Turkey Roulade to acclaim and applause at the 1984 IKA Competition in Frankfurt, Germany.
Thanks to the efforts of such creative chefs, Americans today consume an average 17.5 pounds of turkey per person annually! But be assured, turkeys will always be a key part of Thanksgiving, because where else would a nation, built on free speech, gather together and celebrate the right to “talk turkey” at the table.