Thursday, November 22, 2012

Fowl Myths About the Life of a Turkey

Vintage postcard celebrating America, the Pilgrims, and Mr. Turkey.

The people who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and celebrated their first harvest in 1621, were feeling lucky to have survived that first year. They invited some of the Indians to join with them in celebration and the Indians all brought their families, as was their custom. The Pilgrims looked around and were a little worried they might not have enough food for the (now) large assembly.

The Indians could see the problem and went out hunting so there would be food for all. Thus began the tradition of sending out someone at the last minute on Thanksgiving Day to pick up more food.

Most of the turkeys we eat are tom turkeys. Cross breeding has changed the turkey considerably, even since this vintage postcard was printed in the 1920s.

We don't really know if the Pilgrims and the Indians shared turkey on that first Thanksgiving day. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopava) is a native of North America, and several of the Plymouth colonists later wrote that their men and some of the Indians went out "fowling" before the feast.

It has thus become part of the mythology of the holiday that turkey was included on the menu. There were a lot of wild turkeys in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. What many Americans may not know is that the turkey already had a long history with both Indians and Europeans in the Americas. It had been domesticated as early as the fifteenth century by the Aztecs in Mexico. The Spaniards, after decimating the Aztec civilization, took some turkeys with them when they returned to Spain. During the next century the turkey was enjoyed through Europe.

If you judge by vintage postcards: little boys like Thanksgiving the best. My father always claimed he was only really full once in his life, and that was one Thanksgiving when he was a boy.

The Pilgrims actually brought some of these European turkeys with them (a re-import, if you will) when they came to Plymouth. They crossbred their turkeys with wild turkeys and then these breeds were again sent back across the Atlantic to England. Thus, for the last five hundred years, the turkey has become a much crossbred, very well traveled bird.

The result today is that most domestic turkeys in North American are no longer able to breed on their own. Most of the hens are used to produce as many toms as possible. The male birds, called toms, are bred to be eaten because of their size, and have been developed to have the very large breast that turkey lovers enjoy.

That is a very lean bird--compared to the ones we eat today. And Uncle Sam is making him work on the holiday!

And therein lies the difficulty with leverage. It just isn't possible for toms, with such wide girth across the breast, to do what would ordinarily be done, naturally, vis a vis the hens. It is what you might call an insurmountable problem. Because of this sad defect in the reproductive life of the turkey, just about every Thanksgiving bird you've enjoyed in your life has been the product of artificial insemination.

Birds do it and bees do it--even educated fleas do it (according to Cole Porter): unfortunately this is no longer true of the turkey.

Easy for him to say. He's hiding behind Old Glory, hoping for a reprieve.

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