Food Facts & Lore

Turkey Trimmings

Summer went by faster than a turkey can fly (55 mph). Canada already celebrated their Thanksgiving. Halloween candies are spilling off store shelves as though pushed from beneath by zombies rising from their year-long slumber, and the price of chicken and turkey is rising as our Thanksgiving approaches, fast.

Our previous Blog article explored the history of candy. This week, we talk American Turkey. This apparently clumsy bird (it is not) has traveled. Several species of wild turkeys have occupied the entire east coast of the Americas for thousands of years. The Aztecs (1300’s to early 1500’s) domesticated their own native turkeys. Upon being introduced to the domestic bird, Spanish explorers (15th century) brought wild turkeys back to Europe. European wild fowl is typically much smaller. A large bird is pure gold to feed large communities.

Two centuries later, the Pilgrims brought the now well-domesticated turkey back to America. Wild turkeys were still roaming freely, but not for long. New Americans would decimate the populations by the early 1900’s.

Turkeys are the subject of several myths, least of which pertains to the historical meal Pilgrims shared with the native people. Written accounts, some in the form of journal entries, refer to a dish of “fowl,” which most likely referred to grouse, duck or goose, all three of which were far more abundant around 1620. Historians also point out that Pilgrims hunted the bald eagle, whose meat may have been served on that occasion. Little did they know!

The turkey may have been perceived as a sacred bird in ancient South American cultures who called it “jeweled bird.” Benjamin Franklin himself stated that it was a “more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.  Which brings us to our second myth: it has been said that Franklin tried to convince his peers to make the turkey, not the bald eagle, the emblem of America. In truth, he merely pointed out that he held the gobbling feathered creature in higher regard.

Turkeys are far from respectable, some might say. In fact, they are plain dumb and can barely see where they are going, and this is why they are so aggressive and attack everything that moves. Myth number three. Associating poor sight with dimwittedness is not only unfair, but also untrue. Turkeys’ vision is superior to our own. They see sharper colors and within a wider spectrum. They also have 270-degree peripheral vision (ours reaches 180 degrees). The aggressive behavior is purely a survival instinct: don’t ask, just show off. And it works.

Turkeys got their name from a Turkish species. Myth. They got their name from Turkish traders. Europeans were introduced to African Guinea Fowl imported by Turkish traders. The American wild turkey was introduced some time later. By then, the name “turkey” had already entered popular culture in English-speaking regions. So, when you think about it, if the Romans had introduced the bird to Europe, it might be called a Romy!

Last but not least, it has been said that turkeys are related to T-Rex. The myth, in this case, arises when we claim they are not. And the proof is in the wishbone. This uncommonly shaped bone structure has been identified in dinosaurs dating back over 150 million years. According to archeological evidence, it first appears in Velociraptor, T-Rex and similar beasts. In birds, it serves as a bracing point for muscles and wings. This is why it is so flexible when fresh and needs to dry before it can snap.

Wishing you a sweet Halloween and a delicious Thanksgiving season.