Tracking the Traditional Turkey
Feeding time at the zoo brought hundreds of turkeys to the predators’ enclosures, where they met their fate at the claws of cat and talons of bird. In Montezuma’s early-sixteenth-century personal menagerie, domestic turkeys were the food of choice.
Human members of Montezuma’s court likewise favored the bird, although more delicately prepared. They called it huexolotl, probably a name imitative of the turkey’s gobbling. They also deified it as Chalchiuhtotolin, the Jeweled Bird that presided over ritual self-mortification. This illustration, form Sabine Eiche's book, Presenting the Turkey: The Fabulous Story of a Flamboyant and Flavorful Bird, shows Chalchiuhtotolin, the Jeweled Turkey from the Codex Borbonicus. The Codex is dated to around 1507, prior to the Spanish Conquest of 1518-1521, although some scholars date it later.
Tomas de Torquemada recorded that Montezuma’s account books showed 8,000 turkeys consumed by the palace household, which was a military establishment, at one marketing.
Turkeys were likely one of the first American critters Columbus and his men saw when they landed on the Caribbean islands, probably on his fourth voyage in 1502. The explorers brought them back to Europe at the mandate of the king. In a letter of 1511, Ferdinand of Spain ordered his chief-treasurer in the West Indies to send five males and five females on every ship sailing home to Spain, presumably for breeding.
At that time, the Spanish called the American bird pabo. Exactly how the bird, scientifically designated Meleagris gallopavo in the eighteenth century, acquired its common name remains clouded. Sabine Eiche, in her 2004 book Presenting the Turkey: The Fabulous Story of a Flamboyant and Flavourful Bird, translates Gonzalo Fernando d’Oviedo’s 1525 summary of the natural history of the West Indies, where he includes turkeys in the Peacock section. “Although their tails are not as large or as beautiful as those of Spanish peacocks, the rest of their plumage is most beautiful,” he wrote. “The flesh of these peacocks is very good, and incomparably better and more tender than that of the peacocks of Spain.”
These domesticated turkeys would have been somewhat different from the endemic wild turkeys, although they are the same species. A second wild species, the ocellated turkey Agriocharis ocellata, is native to the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America, but the two interbreed freely. Some modern authorities suggest that the two should be considered species of a single genus. More than one farmer tells of a turkey tom that came to visit his hens and stayed. An infusion of wild blood is usually advantageous in small barnyard flocks.
EARLY AMERICAN EXPORT
North American turkeys arrived in England sometime after 1520. The guinea fowl, an African fowl, already claimed the appellation “turkey,” and Englishmen called both species turkeys for a time. Their obvious differences, however, required separate names. “Turkey” might have been a general term for foreign goods: the English used Turkey as a vague geographical term associated with Central Asia and Tartary. Some believe that English trade with the Eastern Mediterranean, called Turkish at that time, conferred its name to the exotic bird.
William Strickland of Boynton-on-the-Wolds, Yorkshire, is sometimes credited with bringing the turkey to England in 1524, a result of a voyage with Sebastian Cabot. Although historical documentation is lacking, Strickland was honored with a grant of arms with the turkey cock as crest in 1550.
Europeans may have seen turkeys much earlier. St. Peter’s Cathedral at Schlesing, Norway, has a frieze with eight medallions depicting American turkeys below a mural believed to have been painted around 1280. If turkeys were in Norway at that early date, they didn’t catch on as they did later.
By 1541 the name was established and the bird became a delicacy among Englishmen and mainland Europeans. In Spain, Cervantes included turkey as emblematic of exalted personages in Don Quixote (1605). In England, turkey remained in the top three or four most expensive fowls until late in the seventeenth century, competing with swan, crane, and stork. The French called the bird coq d’Inde, rooster of India. It appeared as an item of upper-class feasts in Francois Rabelais’s second edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel, dated 1542. (Since it was not in the original 1534 edition, it must have acquired cachet at noble tables at that time.) At sixteenth-century Italian banquets, the carver, trinciante, provided part of the evening’s entertainment. Vincenzo Cervio published a book on the subject in 1581, Il trinciante, describing the art of carving everything from meat to fruit.
BACK TO AMERICA
So, Pilgrims would have been familiar with this most American fowl when they arrived in 1620. (Domesticated English turkeys were sent to Jamestown to supply the Virginia colony as early as 1584.) Plimouth Plantation welcomed the bird, as recorded by William Bradford some years after the December 11, 1621, feast that later became celebrated as Thanksgiving. “And besides water foul, ther was a great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many,” he wrote.
A pamphlet for the proposed colony of New Albion, dated 1616, touts “millions of Elkes, Stags, Deer, Turkeys, Fowl [and] Fish.” In 1629, Francis Higginson of Massachusetts Bay wrote to friends in England that he was shooting “fat, sweet and fleshy” turkeys and hen-sized ruffed grouse, which he called partridges, in the woods. For “a great part of the winter” the colonists had “eaten nothing but roast meat of divers fowls which they have killed.”
The abundance of game astonished the colonists, who believed that they might have found Eden. The Bible, after all, told that Adam and Eve had been driven out of the Garden, which might still exist on Earth. In 1498, Columbus believed he had discovered the Gihon, one of the four rivers leading out of Eden, when he sailed into the Orinoco River in South America.