FOOD HISTORY: The Turkey

Turkeys, native to North and South America, belong to the genus, Meleagris. They evolved over 11 million years ago. The wild Turkey of North America is Meleagris galloparvis, while Meleagris ocellata is native to South America and is the ancestor of most contemporary turkeys. The Aztecs name for these birds was Xuehxolotl. These wild birds roamed  free all over ancient North and South America. The Aztec, Mayan and native American cultures used them in their lives and ceremonies. The Aztecs, who domesticated these birds between 10 BC and 10 AD,  used their meat and eggs for food and their feathers for arrows, headdresses and  necklaces and the Mayans used them in many ritual ceremonies. Native Americans also domesticated some  but  hunted the wild ones for food and hunting pleasure. In the 1550's the Spanish Conquistadors were introduced to this bird, new to them, and brought them back to Spain, where they swiftly became domesticated and used for food. From Spain, they made their way to several countries of Western Europe, including France, Italy and England. The bird from the New World  got it's name "Turkey" from the fact that the Europeans of that time had trade relations with the important  international trade center of Constantinople,Turkey where merchants sold goods from Africa and Asia to distributors in Europe. These imported products became known by the nationality of the distributor rather than by the place of their origin;  for example, rugs, even if made in Persia (Iran) but sold in Europe by a Turkish distributor, were called "Turkish" rugs. Thus, a popular edible  bird called  Guinea Hen, originating in Africa but  imported into Europe by Turkish distributors, were called  "Turkey Cocks". Later, their name was shortened just to "Turkey". Because the New World birds resembled these "Turkeys" they were given that name. Curiously, the name of the bird that the Europeans were calling "Turkey" are called "Hindi" in Turkish; short for "the bird from India". The Turks knew that these New World birds were not native to their country and believed that they may have come from  India, since Columbus thought the "New World" he discovered was, in fact, India. The name aside, until the Turkey became available, the European Aristocracy ate Peacock and Pheasant, both having stringy texture. To them, Turkey flesh was much preferred. In 1570, Turkey was served at the wedding feast of Charles IX of France and Turkey became very popular as the bird  to be served for banquets in France. While Europeans still eat turkey, they eat much less than North Americans.  This is due, in large measure, to the migration of the Pilgrims from England to America. Wild Turkeys were introduced, by the Native American Wampanoag tribe, to the Pilgrims when they arrived from England to America in the 1660's.These birds resembled the domesticated, large birds (Turkeys) that were being bred in England. Because of this, the New World birds were called "Turkeys", as well. The abundant population of wild Turkeys became a major food source for the Pilgrims in this new land. In 1621, to celebrate the first successful harvest of the Pilgrim colonies, a "feast" of Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanaog tribe. While no direct evidence exists that Turkeys were part of the first Thanksgiving day celebration that took place in 1621, because these birds were a major food source for both the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, they may have been included that day. Thanksgiving Day became an official US holiday on Oct.13, 1863 by proclamation of the US president Abraham Lincoln. It is not clear when the Turkey became the symbol of Thanksgiving day in the US, but the two are now inseparable. In fact, the "official" nickname given by the American people to Thanksgiving is "Turkey Day".