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The Long Journey of a Noble Bird

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 25, 2014
Updated: Monday, January 05, 2015
Myth and legend surround the history of the turkey and extraordinary international travels precede its prominent place in American supermarkets. Benjamin Franklin called it a "bird of courage," more suitable than the bald eagle to be the emblem of America. And today a roasted turkey is a popular holiday treat.

Charles Dickens may have provided the first literary celebration of the Christmas turkey dinner. In A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a transformed Ebenezer Scrooge presents his underpaid, overworked employee Bob Cratchit with a fat prize turkey to replace a less expensive thin goose that would have barely nourished the seven members of the impoverished Cratchit family. In England, turkey was already recognized as tasty fare. In America, many still viewed Christmas festivities as unseemly and holiday feasts were frowned upon. While celebration was becoming more common in the middle of the nineteenth century, Christmas wasn't declared a U.S. federal holiday until 1885.

The turkey familiar to us today is extinct in the wild. Its ancestry has been traced to Mexico, where the Aztecs domesticated a wild game bird they called the huexoloti. They regarded the bird as a god, and held festivals in its honor. North American natives also considered the turkey a powerful spiritual symbol, and prized its feathers for warmth and guidance into the next life. "The Flight of the Turkey," a story in the Economist, and a "Short History of the Turkey" by Andrew G. Gardner say that when Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, came to Mexico in 1519 he found the court of Moctezuma had a ravenous appetite for huexoloti's feathers and meat. Moctezuma gave Cortes about 1,500 turkeys, and gold, right before Cortes's armies razed his capital. Historians think Columbus took turkeys back to Spain after his fourth transatlantic visit in 1502, because in 1511 Spain's King Ferdinand demanded that all Spanish ships returning from the New World must bring back turkeys to be bred. Afterwards, turkeys spread rapidly to France, Italy, England and Scandinavia, and back to America.

The Economist traces the circuitous linguistic path of the creature's name. Initially, the Spanish thought the birds from Mexico were peacocks. Spanish ships were often manned by Arabs from the Ottoman Empire, and Europeans thought of their fowl as Turkey birds even though many were a different bird that came from Africa. The Economist says even Shakespeare was mixed up about turkeys. The bard describes a "swelling turkey cock" in mocking reference a character in Henry V. Historically, The Economist says, the available bird would have been an African guinea hen. In Turkey, turkeys from Spain were called hindi, on supposition they came from India. The French named turkey the dinde for the same reason. The Economist notes Linnaeus was also confused when he classified the bird in 1759: he called it Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which translates from Latin as guinea-foul-chicken peacock chicken-peacock-all wrong.

In centuries past, the elite prized exotic creatures and novel foods. Today, elites prize the authentic and home grown. Because commercial domestic turkeys have been bred for large white meat breasts, they can't mate and their eggs have to be artificially inseminated. Heritage turkeys, that can cost more than $200, are an effort to restore earlier bird variants. Linguistically, too, the turkey has evolved. In 1970s slang, a theatrical bomb or an inept individual was called a turkey, presumably because poultry farmers have reported that turkeys do dumb things. Earlier, "talking turkey" meant straight talk, no gobbledy-gook. And the tough talk idea is a likely root of "cold turkey," the phrase often used to describe immediate unassisted cessation of drug use. The turkey has also contributed to a popular American icon: Big Bird's feathers are white turkey feathers painted yellow. So enjoy this noble creature if it graces your table!

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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