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The Weird History of the Turkey

The Weird History of the Turkey

Chef Clyde Serda | Chef's Blade

To Americans, the word turkey conjures thoughts of Thanksgiving. However, there are a lot of ideas about the bird and the holiday, which need clarification. It is believed that the first pilgrims that landed in Plymouth would have starved if not for the feast of turkey provided by the local Powhatan natives. In part, that is somewhat true. But, the Pilgrims set sail from England with turkeys on board, bringing them to their new land.

Turkeys arrived in Europe around 1500. They were originally brought to Spain by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, from the area known as the Spanish Indies or New Indies which is now know as the Caribbean. This fast growing and tender bird soon replaced the swan as a main dish in the courts of Europe. It is believed that the turkey received its name from the Turk Merchants who shipped and sold the birds out of the Eastern Mediterranean that was then part of the Turkish Empire, while other parts of Europe believed that the bird originated from Calicut, a seaport on the Malbar Coast of India. This was impart to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India and imported many different foods from there.

It was much to the surprise of the Pilgrims when they saw native turkeys in the woods and fields along the American east coast. The turkey has a natural range from Central Mexico to the northern parts of South America to almost all of North America. The Caribs, (Caribbean Island natives) imported the tasty bird from Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, to all of the islands where the bird flourished quite well. The Mayans used the turkey as a bird of sacrifice, which is still revered in dishes throughout Mexico, especially in a rich molé. In our southwest, the noble and fierce Apaches thought very little of the turkey, since it was not long in flight or fight. They would not use its feathers for their arrows or for decorations. Wild turkeys can fly short distances up to 55 miles per hour; running on the ground they can reach speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

The Pilgrims’ “lifesaving” dinner supplied by Native Americans would more than likely been a concoction made of turkey, dried meats, tomatoes, beans and corn and is now called Brunswick Stew, along with spit roasted turkey, squash and small game and dried corn that was popped.

Was it from this feast that saved our forefathers from peril, that Americans have such a passion for turkey? “Passion?” you ask. Well, in the year 2000, we ate just over 18 pounds of the bird per person. (I know I did my part on barbecued turkey legs). In 1999, turkey was the number 4 choice in protein. In 2000, there were about 276 million birds produced in the U.S. Mass produced turkeys are hatched from eggs that have been artificially inseminated, since the large breasts which have been genetically produced do not allow the turkeys to mate. Almost all of the turkeys produced are white, which helps to prevent dark spots on the skins and makes the few pin feathers, which may be overseen during production are un-noticeable to the consumer; after all, a turkey may have about 3,500 feathers on it! During a 25-week laying cycle, the hens are kept in a controlled environment with an almost constant light source inducing them to lay eggs. A hen usually lays between 80 to 100 eggs, which are slightly larger than chicken eggs and are tan with brown specks. For her reward, the hen is sent to slaughter. Although some producers allow their hens to molt (a 90 day resting period) for a second laying period, but although they lay fewer eggs during their second laying period. The incubation period of the egg is 28 days, from the day it is laid. Baby turkeys are called poult and are tan or brown. With today’s methods of feeding, it only takes about 14 weeks to raise a hen to 15 pounds and 18 weeks to raise a tom to a whopping 35 pounds for market. It takes about 80 pounds of feed to fully raise a tom for market. I once ordered a turkey from a 4-H member for Thanksgiving. He told me that it should weigh about 18 to 20 pounds, but to my surprise, it was delivered at 38 pounds! I had 1-inch clearance in my oven, but it was the best turkey I ever had. Improvements in genetics and feed management have made the domesticated turkeys much more efficient at converting feed to protein than the wild turkey.