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The turkey has a cross-cultural heritage.

Wayne Brezinka, Special to the Star Tribune

The turkey's a well-traveled bird

  • Article by: JO MARSHALL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 21, 2012 - 1:49 PM

Never mind the hours of basting. Or the perils a cook can encounter while wrangling the turkey to the table.

The bird itself has endured a remarkable journey -- spending several millenniums traveling thousands of miles, from the Americas to Europe and back again -- before arriving on your plate.

The turkey is native to North America. It was domesticated at least 2000 years ago in what's now Central Mexico. By the time Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortés darkened the courts of Montezuma in 1519, he saw vast flocks of turkeys being raised for consumption by Aztec royalty.

In 1529, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who wrote extensively on Aztec culture, noted that the turkey was "fat and savory." Turkey tamales were a staple in Aztec kitchens, and turkey mole was on its way to becoming Mexico's unofficial national dish.

Along with the gold they plundered, Spanish conquerors were anxious to present the turkey to their Spanish lords. Europeans treated many New World imports with great suspicion. But the turkey suffered no such indignity. While potatoes and tomatoes languished in ornamental gardens, Europeans gobbled up the turkey.

By 1534, Queen Marguerite of Navarre (who played prominently in the French Renaissance) had established a well-tended flock, and it's reported that 66 turkeys were served at a banquet for Catherine dé Medici in 1549. Italian chefs devised elaborate preparations in which turkeys were stuck with cloves, encased in a crust, and baked with their heads exposed. Turkey, it seems, was quickly displacing the showy (but less tasty) peacock on royal menus.

A bird by any name is ...

How the turkey got its English name is a matter of sheer confusion. In the English lexicon, turkeys were lumped in with the much-loved Guinea Fowl (an African bird), which had come to them by way of Turkish traders.

So much for British befuddlement. If linguists were confused, farmers certainly weren't. English breeders took the bird to new heights, or at the very least, new weights. Observers boasted, "British turkeys achieve a remarkable size."

By the 1600s, great numbers were being driven upwards of 100 miles on foot, from farms in Norfolk and Suffolk to the bustling markets of London. Plump by comparison, the turkey vanquished the goose as the elite choice for holiday feasting. (Remember Bob Cratchit from "A Christmas Carol"? Estimates suggest he would have paid a week's salary for his Christmas goose -- had the transformed Scrooge not upgraded him to a turkey.)

Whew. One would think that was enough of a journey for our feathered hero. But one would be wrong. This sojourn is far from over.

A pilgrimage of their own

Two favorite British breeds, the Norfolk Black and the Cambridge Bronze, were brought back across the pond by English setters in North America.

English stock was reintroduced to its cousins in the wild, further complicating the family tree -- the wild turkey of New England is a different subspecies than the one domesticated in ancient Mexico.

The resulting creature became known as the American Mammoth Bronze.

Through selective breeding with further European strains (notably the White Holland), this turkey eventually developed into what makes up 99.9 percent of U.S. turkey production -- the Broad Breasted White, a bird with plentiful white meat that would be hard pressed to recognize its ancestors.

The Broad Breasted White can achieve a weight of more than 50 pounds, although most go to market much sooner. They can't fly. And their gigantic breast makes it impossible for them to mate, a task that must be replaced by artificial insemination.

By the late 1900s, this fast growing bird had all but wiped out its predecessors. In fact, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimated that there were fewer than 1,500 domestic turkeys capable of breeding left in the United States.

For reasons of taste, biodiversity and animal ethics, a movement sprung up to resurrect the older breeds. Their comeback is impressive, due to organizations such as Slow Food. The census of heritage (breeding) birds was up to 8,800 by 2006, and 2012 will be a banner year for heritage turkey consumption.

Whatever turkey you devour, you'll be feasting on the product of many people, at many times, in many places. You might say the turkey is a melting pot -- an appropriate way to celebrate the day that brings so many of us together, in a nation of many cultures.

Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer who takes frequent breaks to eat.

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