Turkey History

By Duane Friend

In England, during the 1700’s, turkeys were walked to market in large herds. Turkey farmers often covered the birds’ feet with little booties to protect them on the long journey to the London market.

The head and neck of turkeys have no feathers; rather it is covered with red, fleshy skin. A soft floppy growth on the front of the head, which dangles downward over the beak, is called the snood or dewbill. The turkey also has a pouchlike area at the front of his throat which is called a wattle. The head, neck, snood and wattle are all reddish colored until the male turkey begins to do his “strut” or mating dance at which time the entire area turns brilliantly bright red.

Did you ever wonder why the breast and wings of chickens and turkeys have white meat while the legs and thighs are dark? The explanation is a physiological one involving the function of muscles, which gives some insight into humans as well as animals. The dark coloration is not due to the amount of blood in muscles but rather to a specific muscle type and it’s ability to store oxygen.

There are a number of possibilities on why turkeys are called turkeys. Some say Columbus thought the land he discovered was connected to India which had a large population of peacocks. Columbus thought turkeys were part of the peacock family. He decided to call them tuka, which is the word for peacock in the language of India.

Others say that the name turkey came from Native Americans who called the birds firkee, which sounds like turkey.

Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is credited for popularizing the serving of turkey for Christmas dinner.

After the first Thanksgiving in 1621, it took over 200 years before Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed as a national day of thanksgiving, praise and prayer in 1863.

Franklin Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving one year to a week earlier than usual in 1939 to make the Christmas shopping season longer. There was a tremendous outpouring of public disapproval so, in 1941 Thanksgiving was declared a legal holiday by Congress.

Biologists know of two kinds of wild turkey. One is called the ocellated turkey, which is native to Yucatan and Guatemala. It is a brilliantly colored bird with eyelet spots on its tail similar to that of a peacock. The other is the wild turkey common to Mexico and the United States. At one time this wild turkey migrated as far north as Maine and southern Ontario, Canada.

Wild turkeys were probably first domesticated by native Mexicans. Spaniards brought tame Mexican turkeys to Europe in 1519, and they reached England by 1524.

You’ve probably heard of Kentucky Wild Turkey Bourbon. In 1940 Thomas McCarthy, a hunter and distillery executive, brought a private supply of bourbon along with him on an annual wild turkey hunt with his friends. The following year the good old boys requested more of the same bourbon referring to it as “Wild Turkey.” Mr. McCarthy later honored his friends by turning the nickname into a legendary brand of Kentucky bourbon. Today, the distillery is located in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Trivia on turkeys came from the University of Illinois Extension website Turkey for the Holidays at urbanext.illinois.edu/turkey/ .

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