The Eat-ymology of the Turkey

What do you really know about where the turkey came from?

Wild turkey
A proud turkey. Courtesy of Flickr user Dwight Sipler

Chances are this week you'll read your fill of blog posts about this noble bird. But what do you really know about where the turkey - the word or the bird - came from?

Turkeys are true-blue natives of North America, but you wouldn't know it from the names Europeans saddled them with. First brought to Europe by early explorers, the birds were promptly described as a relative of guineafowl, the brown, speckled Asian species that gave us chickens.

Wrong. But forgivable if you consider that the discoverers were also under the impression they had discovered a shortcut to India.

Next comes the common name. Also forgivable: If you were English, what would you call a bird you bought fresh off a boat from Turkey (thanks to circuitous imperial shipping routes that connected the New World to England via the Middle East)? It certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than Meleagris gallopavo

But what's amazing to me is the swift and total domination with which turkeys obliterated their competition in the European poultry market. The birds tasted so good that by 1525 - just 33 years after Columbus, remember - they were selling out at markets, according to Taste, a great book on English food. Up till then the lords and ladies had been feasting on what sounds like a collection of exotic hats: egrets, curlews, lapwings, cranes, and bustards. Those great stringy marsh birds had no chance against a giant, plump grouse fattened on beech nuts and corn.

The native peoples of Mexico had domesticated their subspecies of turkey, and it was these birds that came back to Europe with the first explorers. So, you guessed it, when Europeans sailed back over to settle the East, they brought their own turkeys with them. Turkeys are native to all the eastern states (and were so plentiful that local tribes apparently didn't bother to domesticate them). But the Pilgrims didn't know that, so better safe than sorry.

The birds' abundance was short-lived in the Age of Gunfire, and by the mid-nineteenth century New England had been emptied of turkeys. It got so bad that naturalists curious about turkey biology were reduced to quoting Audubon, "who had far better opportunities for observing the wild turkey than can ever be had again."

Happily, nothing that tastes that good can be allowed to go extinct without a fight, and reintroduction efforts proved spectacularly successful. More than 4 million turkeys now roam the lower 48 - including regions outside their original range - and a good proportion of those seem to live along my commute to work.

So as we head into the Shark Week of the American culinary scene (all turkey, all the time), don't groan at the prospect of overcooked turkey breast. You're being treated to the smash hit bird of the millennium... the gobbler that gobbled Europe.

Especially if you follow my simple rule: It's hard to ruin a turkey if you slather it with butter every 15 minutes for the first 4 hours. And regardless of what your in-laws do to the poor bird, it's going to be better than stewed egret.

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