Hungry History

Turkey Talk: The Story Behind Your Thanksgiving Bird

By Stephanie Butler
turkey

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Let’s talk turkey. ‘Tis the season for this noble animal, a true native American and Benjamin Franklin’s pick for national bird. A turkey is much more than just a yearly holiday roast, or the humble sliced lunchmeat on your club sandwich. This week, we’ll examine some little known facts about the turkey to gobble up along with your Thanksgiving feast.

Turkeys have run wild through the United States since long before Pilgrim days. There’s even a fairly detailed fossil record of early turkey ancestors in states from Virginia to California. The Mesoamerican peoples of present day Mexico were the first to domesticate the bird, and that culinary legacy lasts until today: Mexican cuisine is the one type of food in the world that prominently features turkey in many of its recipes. Turkey moles are especially popular in Oaxaca, with chocolate and pumpkin seeds adding a luscious flavor to the meat.

Outside of North America, William Strickland was the first to introduce turkey to his native England in the 16th century. As a tribute to the man and his bird, a turkey was added to the Strickland family coat of arms, which is still in use today. Turkey was seen as something of an extravagance in Europe until fairly recent years. Other birds like pheasant and grouse were native to the continent, and therefore less expensive. One of the first mentions of turkey as a celebratory roast was in none other than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Poor Bob Crachit and his family are about to dine on a goose for Christmas dinner, until an enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge intervenes and brings them a decadent turkey, instead.

Today, if we want to taste a bird similar to what Strickland or even Dickens dined on, we’re going to have to look past most local supermarkets. In the 1940s, turkey breeding was intensified, and farms began to pump out many millions of birds a year. The predominant breed sold in markets today is the Broad Breasted White. It was bred specifically to have more white meat than dark meat: the ratio for these birds is 65% white meat to 45% dark. These birds can grow to be giants, often topping out at 50 pounds. In contrast, wild turkeys only weigh in at a maximum of about 25 pounds.

To fight the encroachment of the Broad Breasted White, and take advantage of America’s newfound fascination with artisanal foods, farmers have begun raising more traditional turkey breeds. These “heritage” birds can trace their ancestry to the earliest domesticated animals, and have evocative names like Midget White, Bourbon Red, and Royal Palm. Their white to dark meat ratio is closer to 50/50, and the flavor of their meat is noticeably gamey in comparison with the Broad Breasted variety. These heritage birds don’t come cheap: you might see supermarkets literally giving away Broad Breasted Whites as promotional deals, but a Bourbon Red can sell for nearly $9 a pound. While this might not be everyone’s taste, thousands appear on dinner tables every Thanksgiving, with more raised every year.

Categories: Thanksgiving, Turkey