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Fowl Play: Why Turkey, You Turkey?
by Marjorie Dorfman

How did the turkey become a part of the Thanksgiving feast we all know today? Was the poor creature ever just a tough old bird with no particular place to go on a holiday? When did things begin to change? Read on, whether you prefer light meat or dark.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated throughout history, dating as far back as the ancient world. Although eating turkey was not always a part of the menu, harvest festivities were held by the ancient Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Chinese and Egyptian cultures. Before the establishment of formal religions, many farmers believed that crops died because of the evil spirits they contained. They also feared that these spirits were vengeful and had to be destroyed during harvest time. Many early festivals were intended to ward them away before they could come back and get even.

turkey for thanksgiving The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, goddess of corn (and all grains) at a festival held every autumn called Thesmposphoria. The Romans celebrated Cerelia, which revered Ceres, their goddess of corn (from which the word cereal derives). It was held on October the fourth and featured offerings of harvest fruits and livestock. Festivities included music, parades, games and sports as well as a grand banquet. The Chinese celebrated Chung Ch’ui, with the full moon that fell on the 15th day of the 8th month. This was considered the birthday of the moon and special round and yellow "moon cakes" were baked. Families ate a thanksgiving meal of roasted pig, harvested fruits and moon cakes.

There are two types of wild turkey, both of which are strong fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and among the fastest runners (15-30 mph). It make one wonder why they can’t run or fly fast enough to avoid being dinner on so many American tables that last Thursday in November. In North America, the Navaho tribe first encountered wild turkeys after they found them formidable competitors for their own scanty crops. Since they couldn’t keep them out of the cornfields, they decided to feed them and fence them in instead. This brilliant strategy turned the turkey/pest into a consistent source of both protein and ornamental feathers. (Not to mention a special feather in the cap of the Indian who thought it all up in the first place.)

turkey in loveIt is said that Christopher Columbus named the turkey tuka, the Tamil word for peacock. This makes sense, as it is well known that he thought he was in India and not the New World at the time of the alleged naming. (Not unlike myself, who never knows where I am at any given time.) It is also possible that Luis De Torres, a physician who served under Columbus, named the bird tukki, which translates to big bird from the Hebrew. (No relation to Big Bird of puppet fame.) If it is true that the North American Indians called the bird firkee, then the word has been mispronounced for as long as the poor creature has been eaten; about 500 years.

In 1519 Cortez and the Conquistadores discovered Montezuma’s famous zoo and the turkeys he kept in it. The Aztecs used the turkeys as food for the other animals. The Conquistadores, like all true invaders worth their salt, stole the idea, the turkeys and everything else that wasn’t nailed down from that civilization. It is said that the famous recipe, turkey mole poblano, traditionally prepared with chocolate and chili, dates back to this time.

wild turkeyThe Spaniards carried the turkey back to Europe, where it quickly became a choice dish for state dinners. It was a little larger than a goose, with a lot more meat and an exotic new taste. In 1557, Flemish artist, Peter Bruegel the Elder, depicted the turkey as a symbol of envy. Another Bruegel drawing, "Fortitude in the Seven Virtues," illustrated a turkey being slain as one of the monsters of sin. On June 27, 1570, turkeys were roasted at the wedding feast of Charles Xl of France and Elizabeth of Austria. The king was so impressed with the birds that he began to breed them in the royal forest of St. Germain. The turkey subsequently became a popular dish at banquets held by the French nobility. Even Shakespeare in 1590 mentions turkeys in the Twelfth Night, (act 4, scene 5).

Of course, the turkey’s passage to America has forever been immortalized in the mind of every American over the age of six. On December 11, 1620, the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth, Massachusetts from a European world of religious persecution. Their first winter was hard and they never would have survived without the help of the native Americans, who shared their knowledge of hunting wild fowl. They had brought turkeys with them from England and inter-bred them with the native stock. The first thanksgiving of 1621 was probably not what most of us think. Although two contemporary accounts mention "fowl" and "wild turkeys", it is more likely they were referring to pheasants, geese and ducks rather than the wild North American turkey.

The harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one and of the original 102 settlers, forty-six had died. The remaining colonists decide to celebrate their survival with a feast, and they invited the 91 Indians who had helped them through their first year. It is said the festivities lasted three days. Governor Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese. It is more likely they found and ate venison. "Turkey" at that time referred to any sort of wild fowl that was trying not to smoke or take drugs (cold turkey).

Thanksgiving turkeyThis first Thanksgiving feast was not repeated the following year. In 1623, during a severe drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain. When it stormed the next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of thanksgiving. It was not until October of 1777, however, that all thirteen colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It commemorated the victory of the British over the Battle of Saratoga, but was not repeated. (Neither was the battle.)

It was Benjamin Franklin during the First Continental Congress who suggested the turkey as a fitting emblem for the Great Seal. But he was outvoted by John Adams who proposed the bald eagle. In 1789 George Washington proclaimed a National day of Thanksgiving, although some colonists were opposed to it. It was largely through the efforts of Sara Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, that Thanksgiving was eventually recognized as a national holiday. After a forty-year campaign of writing editorials to governors and presidents, Hale’s obsession became a reality. In 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every president since Lincoln, although the date was changed a few times. It was Franklin Roosevelt who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused the President in 1941 to move Thanksgiving back to its original date. Congress then finally sanctioned it as a legal holiday falling always on the fourth Thursday in November.

And so, when someone asks, "why turkey, you turkey," now you have an answer. Unfortunately, there’s no solution for the poor turkey, who really needs some help in learning how to fly higher, run faster and in general, find a better place to hide.

Did you know . . .?

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