A History of the Turkey

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Podcast Transcript

For about a month, from the end of November to the end of December, every year, one of the most popular animals in North America is the turkey. 

Turkeys are the traditional meal served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, it is a tradition that is found almost nowhere else in the world. 

This is mostly due to the fact that turkeys are native to North America.

Learn more about the turkey, how it became domesticated, and how it became a part of the holidays in North America on this Episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There were many foods that went from the Americas to the Old World during the Columbian Exchange. Plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and squash all originated in the new world. However, livestock and other farm animals largely went the other way around. 

Cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, and horses were brought over from the old world, but there was very little in the way of animals that went from the new world to the old.

Much of this had to do with the fact that there weren’t that many domesticated animals in the new world. Llamas were domesticated in South America, but they were of limited use compared to horses. Dogs and guinea pigs were also domesticated, but again, they were pretty small. 

One of the only bird species that was domesticated prior to the Columbian Exchange was the turkey. 

Turkeys are native to North America. For those of you who don’t live in North America, they are relatively large ground-dwelling birds that are part of the order Galliformes, which includes other ground-dwelling birds such as chickens, partridges, pheasants, peafowl, and quail. 

They aren’t as big as an ostrich or an emu, but they are definitely bigger than a chicken. 

There are only two species of turkey. One species is the ocellated turkey, formally known as Meleagris ocellata, which is found in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. 

The other is known as the wild turkey or Meleagris gallopavo. It is found throughout the eastern and central United States and parts of central Mexico, and if you are lucky, you might see some in parts of southern Canada in Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba.

Turkeys are known for the distinctive tail feathers in the males and the fleshy wattle which hangs below their beak. This is known as a snood, which I have a feeling is something that might come in handy someday if you are playing Scrabble. 

The ocellated turkey in Mexico is an extremely colorful bird with both males and females with blue heads. 

Fossil evidence of other species of turkey has been found in North America, which has led researchers to believe that turkeys evolved and are endemic to North America. 

One species, the California Turkey, is believed to have gone extinct about 10,000 years ago, probably due to overhunting and drought caused by the end of the ice age. Bones of California turkeys are commonly found in the La Brea tar pits. 

The wild turkey has five subspecies: the Eastern Wild Turkey, which is by far the most widespread. The Osceola Wild Turkey is found near the Florida Panhandle. The Rio Grande Wild Turkey can be found in Texas and parts of the southwest. Merriam’s Wild Turkey which lives in the Rocky Mountains and western Great Plains. Finally, Gould’s Wild Turkey is found in northern Mexico and parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Wild turkeys were very important to many native people throughout North America. They hunted the birds, consumed their eggs, and used the feathers for decoration. There were stories of controlled fires being used to create habitat for wild turkeys to make them easier to hunt.

When Europeans arrived in North America, they also found wild turkeys to be a particularly easy sort of game meat. It is probable that turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving meal, but it also probably wasn’t the center of it. It was just one of many foods available.

Over the 19th and into the 20th century, the population of wild turkeys declined dramatically due to loss of habitat and hunting. In the 17th century, there were believed to have been 10 million wild turkeys. By 1930, there were only about 30,000 left.

However, in the later 20th century, the wild turkey has made a stunning comeback.

Growing up, I never saw wild turkeys. However, where I live now, I see wild turkeys all the time. It is not at all uncommon to see dozens of wild turkeys out in a field feeding.

The domestication of turkeys probably first happened about 2800 years ago somewhere in Central Mexico. 

The wild turkey is surprisingly easy to domesticate. In the course of doing research for the episode, I found several examples of people who have incubated abandoned wild turkey eggs and have raised them as pets. The turkeys immediately attached to the humans. They would follow them around even after they were adults and would often perch themselves right next to them on chairs. 

The ease in domestication is because turkeys are highly social creatures who will adopt people or other domesticated turkeys as their flock.

Turkey meat and eggs were an important protein for people in Mesoamerica. 

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they brought turkeys back to Spain. In Spain, they actually had a great deal of success breeding turkeys and developed several new breeds of turkeys, including the Spanish Black and the Royal Palm.

In the 16th century, the English navigator William Strickland brought turkeys to England. There are reports as early as 1573 of turkeys showing at Christmas markets in England. 

While turkeys were grown and consumed, they never achieved the same level of popularity as goose or duck. 

When England established their first colony in North America at Jamestown in 1608, domesticated turkeys were brought with the settlers from England, thus now making the round trip across the Atlantic. 

So, the modern domesticated turkey is the ancestor of birds that were domesticated in Mexico, taken to Europe, and then brought back to the Americas. 

Here, I should probably address how the bird was given the name turkey, which I’m sure you might have realized at a very young age, happens to share the same name as a country. 

There are several theories as to how the name came about. 

One theory holds that the bird was misidentified by Europeans when they arrived in the Americas as guineafowl. At the time, guineafowl were being brought into Europe by Ottoman traders via Constantinople. 

Because of the confusion, they were named turkey coqs and turkey fowl, which was later shorted to ‘turkey.’

The other theory holds that turkeys didn’t come to England directly from the Americas, but rather, they arrived from ships that came from Constantinople. They were, again, dubbed turkey-cocks and turkey-hens, or collectively turkey fowl, and then later shortened to turkey. 

In both cases, the bird was named after the country due to confusion. 

Turkeys were a popular food source in the American colonies but by no means the primary food source. What turkeys had going for them was that domesticated turkeys could be raised, and wild turkeys could be hunted. 

The tradition of cooking a turkey for a holiday meal came from the English, who would often have a goose or a duck for Christmas. 

There is an apocryphal story of Benjamin Franklin proposing that the national bird of the United States be the turkey rather than the bald eagle. In a letter written to his daughter Sarah in 1784, he wrote:

“For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as 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, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor 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. . . . the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” 

The letter was not a serious proposal, and it was written to his daughter, not to any official in the government. It was really just a tongue-in-cheek joke, and there is no indication that he really thought the turkey should replace the eagle.

Alexander Hamilton was reported to have said, “No citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”

However, turkey still wasn’t associated with Thanksgiving or really any special meal. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that this developed as a trend. Much of this was influenced by writers like Charles Dickens, who wrote of having a goose for Christmas in his 1843 book A Christmas Carol, and by American authors such as Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote about a turkey dinner in her 1823 book Northwood. 

One of the big reasons why turkey became popular was because it was a native bird to the United States. 

Turkey had become the primary meal served at Thanksgiving dinner in New England by 1857. When Thanksgiving was popularized during the Civil War, turkey had been well-established as a meal for holidays. 

Turkey has also become a popular dish served at Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in October.

One of the more recent traditions surrounding turkeys is the presentation and pardoning of a turkey before Thanksgiving by the president of the United States. 

Turkeys had been sent to presidents by Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose, starting with Ulysses S. Grant. He sent a turkey to the president every year until 1913. 

In 1946, the tradition was revived by the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board. They sent a turkey to the White House, where President Truman appeared publicly with the turkey to take photos. 

The turkeys delivered to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower actually wound up as Thanksgiving meals.

President John Kennedy spared his turkey in 1963, just days before he left for Dallas, where he was assassinated. 

The sparing of the Presidential turkey became the new tradition, but at no point was the term ‘pardon’ ever used. 

It was first used by President Ronal Reagan in 1987 as an offhand joke.

Starting in 1989, President George H. W. Bush performed a mock pardon for the turkey, which has been done ever since. 

Cooking turkey has always been challenging. Unlike other types of fowl, turkey has a tendency to be somewhat dry. The turkey baster was invented to help solve this problem. Juices from the pan have to be constantly squirted over the turkey to prevent dryness. 

One of the newest ways to cook a turkey is by frying it, which is much more difficult than it sounds. It requires a very large pot and a lot of oil, and it has to be done outside because it can be extremely dangerous. A wet turkey that is submerged in hot oil too quickly can cause a boilover, which can result in a massive fireball. 

While turkey was traditionally only consumed at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it has become more popular throughout the year in the form of sliced turkey meat and ground turkey meat. It has been marketed as a low-fat alternative to other meat products. 

Sliced turkey and other processed turkey products can be found in many countries; however, it can be very difficult to find whole turkeys. I remember being in Bangkok once during Thanksgiving, and there was one store that catered to Westerners that had whole turkeys, but they only had a small number and were ridiculously expensive. 

In many countries, not only can you not find whole turkeys, but many homes don’t have ovens that are large enough to cook them.

You can find whole turkeys in the United Kingdom, where there are a fair number of turkey producers, but they still aren’t nearly as popular as they are in the United States and Canada. 

Today, the worldwide turkey market is about 600 million birds per year, only about 1% of that of the chicken market. 

Today, a roasted turkey is a central element of many Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States and Canada, symbolizing gratitude and the communal spirit of the holiday. 

We owe it all to ancient people in Central Mexico in 2000 who domesticated this wild bird.