TCS Daily

Let's Talk Turkey

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 24, 2004 12:00 AM

From the low peasant to the lord,
Turkey smokes on every board.
-- John Gay's Fables ca. 1700

This Thanksgiving Day, Lord willing, I will be at a table with my wife in our daughter's home in Lexington, Ky. With my son-in-law and two of our grandsons and sundry other guests, we will fall to that most American of feasts.

There will be stuffing and mashed potatoes and cranberry and, of course, Meleagris gallopavo, the meatiest of American birds, the turkey.

How this robust variety of pheasant got its name we do not know for certain. Stories abound, including the possibility that American Indians called the bird "firkee," and European settlers somehow substituted the "t" at the front.

Whatever the Indians may have called it, Christopher Columbus, the dead white male who discovered the New World, liked the taste of the bird when he encountered it over here. Still under the impression that he had landed in some part of India back in 1492, he is said to have called the bird "tuka," a Tamil word for peacock.

Incidentally, there is a slightly different version of the bird common in Mexico and Central America. It's called Agriocharis ocellata, and it may be that it was the version first tasted by Columbus. Columbus brought some of these birds back to Spain with him (as would Hernando Cortez).

Anyway, the story goes that the Tamil word tuka got changed to a Hebrew word, "tukki" by merchants raising and selling the birds in Spain, and the English massaged that into "turkey."

Well, whatever the case, turkeys are quite prolific, and by 1530 there are records of the birds being raised for food in England, France and Italy. So, whether or not the Pilgrims had turkey on the menu at their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, those early New England settlers were already familiar with the bird by the time they came to America.

Fossil evidence shows that turkeys have been roaming the American continent for millions of years. Thousands of years ago, Indians in the American southwest are said to have captured turkeys in large numbers and confined them for eventual eating. But it may have been the Aztecs who actually domesticated the birds as a meat source.

There are records, believe it or not, of "turkey drives" on the American western frontier, herding the birds like cattle to market. The folks at Norbest, a cooperative of turkey producers, inform us that "one of the earliest turkey drives was over the Sierras from California to Carson City, Nevada," where hungry silver miners paid five bucks apiece for the birds.

Boy! Those were "range" turkeys, but not exactly free range.

Modern "domesticated" birds (meaning the ones you eat, the Butterballs etc.) are quite different from their wild cousins. They've been bred for eating and thus lead a rather sedentary life. Broad-breasted, largely white meat birds, they have wings but cannot fly.

Pious greenies and free range enthusiasts are not real happy with the thought of all these turkeys (over 260 million a year in America) bellying up to a daily diet of corn and soybean meal fortified with vitamins and minerals (an average of 84 pounds of feed to produce a 30-pound "tom") but the fact is it results in a meaty, tasty bird that Americans love.

Annual per capita turkey consumption in the U.S.A. began ramping up from about 8.5 pounds in 1975 to about 15 pounds in mid-80s, and has leveled off at around 17 pounds for the last 15 years. A significant portion of that (over 5 pounds) gets eaten between October and the end of December, as one might expect.

The next highest per capita turkey eaters after Americans are Hungarians, at 14 pounds a year. Canadians and Poles are next at around 10 pounds. Europeans in general consume around 9 pounds.

Some hunters here in the Ligonier Valley, in southwestern Pennsylvania, enjoy the gamey taste of wild turkey, or at least they say they do. Maybe they just enjoy the hunt. The meat is mostly brown and, I think, rather tough, because wild turkeys are always working out. Unlike their domesticated cousins, they can fly -- not very far, but very fast. They've been clocked at over 50 miles per hour, which, considering their size and shape, seems pretty fast to me.

They can run, too. One day last winter, I recall looking out into the woods behind our house and noticing a rather large dark shape against the snow, which I surmised to be a small boulder on the hillside. The "boulder" began to move, uphill. It was a wild turkey and its speed amazed me. I did a little research and found that wild turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 miles an hour.

Me, I'll stick with the domesticated variety, roasted rather slowly (3 to 6 hours, depending on the size) and served with traditional stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, maybe some peas or green beans, cranberry sauce, the classic "works."

l call it Norman Rockwell style. I hate it when someone tries to "get jiggy" with turkey.


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