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The flightless, huge, ugly-looking, domesticated turkey is more popular in North America than anywhere else in the world.
Indigenous to the Americas, wild turkey is a majestic, fast running bird more of interest to hunters than butchers. It was domesticated around 10 B C – 10 A D by Aztecs who ate its meat, and used its feathers for ornamentals purposes. According to accounts, they staged a turkey festival every 200 days and traded approximately 900 – 1000 birds daily in their markets. Mayan royal feasts included turkey wrapped in corn tortillas. By the time conquistadors arrive in the Americas, turkey had become the staple meat of Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and other indigenous peoples. Both H. Cortes and C. Columbus tasted turkey and found the meat tasty enough to take a few specimens to Spain. Soon turkey was popular amongst the European aristocracy due to its less stringy texture. Up to that time, nobility ate peacock and pheasant both of which have stringy flesh. From Spain, turkey spread to France and Italy, but today Europeans eat much less turkey than North Americans do.
Further east in the Middle East, turkey never really gained popularity although there are flocks that are paraded in residential streets. When a customer buys a bird, it is slaughtered right on the sidewalk and plucked. Not a pretty sight!
By the 16th century, British referred to the bird as turkeycock, but the origin of the word unclear. In India, turkey is called tuka by the Tamils (a south Indian people who were brought to Sri Lanka for tea picking). Today there are Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils), some claim the name comes from the guttural sound turkeys make, others call it hindi for Indian believing the bird came from there. The French call it dinde (also meaning from India = d’Inde which was eventually abbreviated) and a small specimen dindon, whereas South Americans refer to it as peru.
When the Pilgrims sailed to North America in 1620, they actually took a few domesticated turkeys with them in the Mayflower. There is however, a huge difference between the wild and domesticated turkey. In the wild the bird is fast (up to 40 kilometres), its eyesight and hearing are sharp. Although unattractive looking, the male has an iridescent plumage. During the day wild turkeys forage for seeds, berries, buds and grubs (even a little snake, frog or lizard may be a meal on occasion), and at night they fly into trees to roost.
Benjamin Franklin so admired turkeys that he proposed it as the national bird and when the eagle was chosen he was reportedly extremely disappointed.
Thousands of hunters pursued the wild turkey so persistently that by 1930 there were fewer than 30,000 specimens in the U S A. The wild bird was hunted to extinction in 1902 in Ontario. Conservationists introduced turkey in the wild successfully and today every province has a sizeable flock. In the USA all states boast large inventories except Alaska. Pelee Island, the most southerly landmass in Canada, has sizeable wild turkey population attracting hundreds of turkey hunters.
Commercially available turkey is completely different. It is specifically bred for its huge breast and tender meat. (Broad Breasted White was bred in the 1950’s for commercial use and today constitutes the majority available). It cannot fly at all, it cannot even run as it is too heavy and cannot mate due to the size of its breasts. Turkeys must be artificially inseminated in huge farms that resemble manufacturing plants. Although the natural colour of the turkey is black, commercial species are white-feathered. Most birds reach 10 Kg live weight in 15 weeks due to the constant availability of formulated feed and ample water. The food is designed to retain water in the body. Consequently roasting loss is significant.
Turkey meat is naturally dry; because the bird does not have a chance to create a fate layer that actually provides taste. For this reason carcasses are injected with vegetable oil solutions, water and salt to render it “self basting” an insult to the wild turkey.
Many people are now trying to revive breeds like Narragansetts, Bombon reds and Bronzes that resemble the original turkey.
In restaurant kitchens whole turkeys are used for Thanksgiving-, Christmas- and special dinners. Many chefs buy turkey rolls, which are available in various shades, white, dark or blended. Then you can buy sausages, breast or legs. Needless to say the natural taste and texture has been completely altered in an attempt to increase production and reduce market-ready weight growth time to I crease profits. Fortunately, a small fraction of food enthusiasts can differentiate between taste and texture and facsimiles thereof. They have started fighting to reverse the trend.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu