Picture the traditional Thanksgiving dinner: a festive table, a loving family, glowing candles and the finest china used only on special occasions. And the centerpiece of the festive meal: the turkey, golden brown, with stuffing and gravy on the side, awaiting the carving knife and whetting the appetites of all those present. This centerpiece scene, emerges from both holiday traditions and a unique world history of a native American god bird.
Wild Turkey Origins
There are two types of wild turkey, both of which are strong fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and among the fastest runners (15-30 mph). One type is originally from Yucatan and Guatemala (Agriocharis ocellata; 47 family - Phasianidae) and the other is from Mexico and the US (Meleagris gallopavo; family -Phasianidae). From the fossil record they were once much more widespread. They diverged from pheasants 11 million years ago and were likely "distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene".
Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), or "huexolotlin" in the ancient language of the Aztecs in Mexico was one of the first animals in the Americas to be domesticated. The Aztecs in Mexico considered "huexolotlin" so important, they dedicated two religious festivals a year to the birds. During the celebration, turkey eggshells which had been saved for months were strewn upon the streets to honor the god who favored them with such a plentiful source of food. The turkey was also one of the manifestations of Tezcatlipoca, the trickster god, who had been elevated to the highest position in the Aztec polytheistic pantheon. All year round, it was not uncommon for over 1000 turkeys a day to be sold in a busy Aztec market. There is evidence that turkeys and were kept in pens for their plumage. The natives used turkey feathers for necklaces, head adornments, and arrows.
Appreciation for the turkey was also evident in the Mayan culture where parts of the bird were used in sacred ceremonies. Its popularity among other tribes grew, and the turkey population had spread far beyond Mexico by the time the first European explorers set foot there. The bird's plumage, as in the case of the Honduras Turkey, grows more lustrous and magnificent as the family extends southward.
In North America, tribes like the Navajo first encountered wild turkeys after they had trouble keeping the hungry birds away from the scanty crops they had scratched out of the desert. Losing the battle to bar them from the cornfields, they decided instead to feed the turkeys and fence them in. By barging in and refusing to leave, the invading turkeys unwittingly provided a controlled source of protein and ornamental feathers. Instead of pests, they became symbols of friendship and providence.
The Eastern turkey subspecies, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, spread to the Northeast where nomadic Indians did not bother to domesticate the bird who enjoyed the abundant vegetation and thrived without agricultural welfare. Tribes like the Wampanoags hunted wild turkeys with bows and arrows. The turkeys were "called up" by imitating their calls, and then grabbed by a child hiding behind some logs or in a pit, or shot with bow and arrow.
Some say Christopher Columbus named turkeys "tuka," the Tamil word for peacock. Considering Columbus thought he was in India at the time of the alleged naming, not in the New World where he actually was, this definition seems fairly plausible. Another suggestion is that Luis de Torres, a physician who served under Columbus, named the bird "tukki," which translates to "big bird" in Hebrew. Some say the North American Indians called the bird "firkee." If so, it's a word everyone else has mispronounced the past 508 years.
In 1519, Cortez and his fellow Spanish Conquistadors had found the Aztecs raising huexolotlin around their homes. The Aztec emperor,
Montezuma, kept the turkeys in his famous zoo, it is said, as food for the other animals. Cortez might have been served turkey mole poblano (mole of the people.) Turkey mole poblano is traditionally prepared with chocolate and chile.
Here is a brief excerpt from Bernal Diaz, a soldier of Cortes, of eating turkey at one of these royal meals:
"For each meal his servants prepared for him... dishes cooked in their native style, which they put over earthernware braziers to prevent them from getting cold. They cooked more than 300 plates of food the great Moctezuma was going to eat...fowls, turkey (el pavo).."
The Spaniards soon carried the savored "el pavo" back to Europe where they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for
state dinners. The turkey was little larger than the traditional goose, with a lot more meat and a refreshingly new taste. These exotic birds were introduced at a time when America was called The Spanish Indies or the New Indies, illustrating the confusion in people's minds about the true location of this new land that Columbus had found. As a result, the Spaniards mistakingly called them "Indian fowl." As the Indian fowl was evenually aquired and raised througout Europe and Asia, many languages, as well as others like Arabic and Hebrew, called the "Indian fowl" names like the "bird of India."
In 1530, English merchants trading out of that area of the eastern Mediterranean called the Levant but whom the English called "Turkey merchants" because that whole area was then part of the Turkish empire. The "Indian fowl" was served to and enjoyed by all. The English mistakingly named this fowl a "Turkey bird", or "Turkey cock". To compound the difficulties the English had with this immigrant fowl, at about the same time, the 1530s, Portuguese merchants reintroduced the guinea-fowl from West Africa, which had last been seen in England at the time of the Romans. As it was the same Levant merchants who brought this into the country, the guinea fowl was also known for a time as the "Turkey bird", though this confusion didn't last long. For example, the heraldic arms granted to William Strickland in 1550 featured "a turkey-bird in his pride proper" and the bird shown is quite definitely a proper turkey.
In 1557, Flemish artist, Peter Bruegel the Elder, depicted the turkey apparently already well known as a symbol of "Envy." Another Bruegel drawing "Fortitude" in the Seven Virtues, the turkey is being slain as one of the monsters of Sin.
On June 27, 1570 turkeys were roasted at the wedding feast of Charles XI of France and Elizabeth of Austria. The King was so impressed with the birds that he began to breed them in the forest of St Germain. The turkey subsequently became a popular dish at banquets held by the French nobility.
In 1590, Shakespeare knew his audience would understand the reference to the turkey's aggression display of blowing out its breast and strutting when he described the posturings of Malvolio:
"SIR TOBY BELCH: Here's an overwheening rogue!
FABIAN: O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes!"
[Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 5]
As an aside to this, and to illustrate the total confusion over its origins by everyone, when the turkey did arrive in India, it was brought there via the Spanish possessions in the East Indies, and one name for it was the "Peru bird", most probably because that was what the Portuguese, with their strong colonial presence in India, called it; still quite wrong, because there were no turkeys in Peru, but at least they had the right area of the world.
Welcome Home Turkey
In 1620, the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower onto the "New World," currently known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. As colonist began to search for sources of food, they met up with Northeastern Native Americans. There new neighbors shared their knowledge of hunting large fowl. The colonist were suprised to see turkey cocks gobbling and strutting on this land simular to the domesticated ones they brought from England. The delicious meat of the wild turkey was an important and an abundant food supply for both Indians and settlers. Soon the New World Pilgrims were cross breeding both stocks of Turkeys at the Plymouth Plantation. Some experts think that roast turkey adorned the first Thanksgiving dinner the Pilgrims had in 1621. Others credit the settlers of Virginia's Jamestown with celebrating the first Thanksgiving as their version of England's ancient Harvest Home Festival.
Turkey as Our National Bird
On July 4 1776, the First Continental Congress selected a committee to design the Great Seal of the United States of America. It was the task of three founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to select a political icon that best reflected the new country.
Benjamin Franklin used his legendary humor to rebutt John Adams nomination of the Bald Eagle simular to Germany's Imperial Eagle Sable. Franklin considered the turkey, not the eagle, as a fitting emblem for the Great Seal. To his dismay, Franklin's turkey was outvoted by a large margin. In a letter to his daughter he wrote:
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country....
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a Red Coat on."
Brilliant artist and naturalist, John James Audubon though highly of the patriotic qualities of the turkey.
"Male turkeys can turn their heads red, white and blue by controlling the flow of oxygen to their heads while strutting."
Although wild turkeys could fly fast, they couldn't fly far, so they became easy shots for hunters. Once American pioneers discovered turkeys were not blessed with either adequate vision or high IQs, and could be easily trapped, they became the settler's primary source of food. The turkey trap was a simple contraption that consisted of a covered pen with a turkey-size hole cut in one wall. On the ground outside, a trail of corn led from the thicket to the hole to the interior of the pen. The unsuspecting turkey would peck up the corn, go inside the pen and, because of its poor eyesight and subnormal intelligence, become so flustered it would be unable to find its way out.
As pioneers pushed west and cut and cleared virgin forests, the turkey's habitat changed and wild turkey numbers dwindled. In the late 1700s, turkeys were harvested without restraint and marketed for human consumption. (some historical reports mention that hens sold for 6 cents apiece while big gobblers brought a quarter at game markets). Wild turkeys were so plentiful; in fact, people looked down on turkey as food suitable for the lower classes. Men of means, however, encouraged turkey breeding to insure that turkey feathers-dyed to decorate their wives' hats, dresses and coats-remained in plentiful supply. By the mid 1800s the Civil War brought a shortage of food and the big bird had been eliminated from nearly half of its original range.
In 1840 Audubon wrote, as to the turkey's status in his time:
"The unsettled parts of the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana, an immense extent of country to the north-west of these districts, upon the Mississippi and Missouri, and the vast regions drained by these rivers from their confluence to Louisiana, including the wooded parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, are the most abundantly supplied with this magnificent bird. It is less plentiful in Georgia and the Carolinas, becomes still scarcer in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and is now very rarely seen to the eastward of the last-mentioned States. In the course of my ramble through Long Island, the State of New York, and the country around the Lakes, I did not meet with a single individual, although I was informed that some exist in those parts. At the time when I removed to Kentucky, rather more than a fourth of a century ago, Turkeys were so abundant that the price of one in the market was not equal to that of a common barn fowl now. I have seen them offered for the sum of three pence each, the birds weighing from ten to twelve pounds. A first-rate Turkey, weighing from twenty-five to thirty pounds avoirdupois, was considered well sold when it brought a quarter of a dollar."
In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained. But around 1920, things began to change for the better. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Also, some farsighted leaders began enacting more and more conservation laws, like the Federal Aid in Restoration Act to manage the nation's wildlife populations, including the wild turkey. Early restoration techniques many state agencies believed to be promising, did not work, such as: artificial propagation of game-farm or pen-raised turkeys. Pen-raised turkeys were not properly imprinted on (recognition and attachment) wild hens and did not have the experience and survival skills necessary to live and reproduce in the wild. Released pen-raised birds spread disease to the true wild flocks. Stocking of pen-raised turkeys only served to feed predators and hinder population expansion. Pennsylvania stopped trying to stock pen-raised turkeys in 1981.
As trapping techniques advanced, turkey numbers began to incline. The development of a rapidly propelled cannon net, originally designed for capturing waterfowl, was a major factor in relocating large numbers of wild turkeys for restoration. Thousands of wild turkeys were captured or moved with this technique or variations of it; in addition, drop nets and immobilizing drugs were used.
During the last 60 years, state and federal wildlife agencies, which are funded largely by hunters' dollars, have spent millions on habitat-improvement and turkey trap-and-transplant projects. By 1959 the total turkey population approached one-half million. In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), a nonprofit conservation and educational organization, was founded to conserve the wild turkeys and to regulate people's hunting habits. Since its inception NWTF has contributed more than $82 million on restoring the turkey throughout its original range, and also introducing it into may other regions. In 1994, almost all of the forested eastern United States and much of the forested West had been restocked, with an estimated total turkey population approaching 4 million. Today, some 4.5 million big birds roam 49 states (all except Alaska). Even though loss of habitat and other environmental factors remain causes for concern, wild turkey populations should stay healthy and growing into the future.
In England, during the 1700's, turkeys were walked to market in large herds. Turkey farmers often covered the birds' feet with little booties to protect them on the long journey to the London market.
Michican Turkey Farmer Carmen Carter Remembers:
"In 1929 Orlo and I had been married two years and had a year old son, Douglas. We were just nicely getting started in the turkey raising business on his parents' farm near Bridgeton. We had about a thousand young turkeys that spring and we bought feed on credit during the growing season and paid for it when we sold the turkeys at Thanksgiving time.
But that year was different. The newspapers were full of news about bank closing, businesses failing, and people out of work. There was just no money and we could not sell the turkeys. So we were in debt with no way out.
But when we read about the bread lines and soup kitchens in the cities, we felt we were lucky because we raised our own food. Our house was rent free, just keep it in repair. Our fuel, which was wood, was free for the cutting. Then our second child, Iris, was born and our biggest expense was doctor bills. However, this too was solved when our doctor agreed to take turkeys and garden produce for pay."
In 1937, poultry researchers, Burrows and Quinn, developed the method of artificial insemination for breeding turkeys. This method is still used today for turkey breeding because mating is difficult. Research into techniques of artificial insemination has allowed positive characteristics to be developed in the breeding turkeys today.
The U.S. turkey industry has experienced unprecedented growth during the past 20 years. Today’s consumer recognizes turkey’s nutritional value and good taste and enjoys turkey year-round, not just during the holidays. In 2002, U.S. consumption of turkey is expected to be more than 17 pounds per person, the #4 protein choice for U.S. consumers. Turkey production has more than tripled since 1970 — the total value of turkey processors’ production in 1999 reached more than $7.8 billion. In 2002, U.S. growers raised 272 million turkeys.
Today's turkeys are raised in scientifically designed, environmentally controlled barns that provide maximum protection from predators, disease and bad weather. Turkeys are not raised in cages, instead, they roam freely around the barn. No one cares for a turkey more than the turkey grower. Research has shown that to mistreat a turkey would be economically detrimental to the grower. A well-treated turkey will grow to its full potential and provide consumers with a low-fat and high-protein source.
Improvements in genetics, feed and management practices have made domesticated turkeys more efficient at converting feed to protein than turkeys in the wild.
Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have more breast meat, meatier thighs and white feathers. Turkeys have been bred to have white feathers, so they leave no unsightly pigment spots under the skin when plucked.
To maintain production continuity, laying turkey hens are artificially inseminated. The use of light induces them to lay eggs under a controlled environment. During a 25-week laying cycle, a hen normally lays 80-100 eggs. At the end of this cycle, the hen is "spent" and is usually processed. Some breeders find it economically feasible to molt the hen (give her a resting period) for another production cycle. It takes 90 days to molt a turkey hen, and her second laying cycle will produce a slightly lower number of eggs (75-80). The incubation period to hatch a turkey egg is 28 days.
Turkeys are fed mainly a balanced diet of corn and soybean meal mixed with a supplement of vitamins and minerals. Fresh water is available at all times. On average, it takes 75-80 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound tom turkey. Today's more modern turkey production methods have shortened the time it takes to bring turkeys to maturity. The hen usually takes 14 weeks and weighs 15.5 pounds when processed. This compares to the tom, which takes 18 weeks to reach a market weight of 32 pounds. Hens are processed and usually sold as whole birds, while toms are further processed into products such as cutlets, tenderloins, turkey sausage, turkey franks and turkey deli meats.
In 2001, about 272 million turkeys were raised. The National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter.
As the savory aroma drifts from your roasted turkey this holiday season, think about and give thanks for the native American god bird you are about to eat.
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