Let’s talk about Turkey: Many myths still surround the focus of Thanksgiving celebrations

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As you travel on Highway 17 between Echo Bay and Desbarats, keep an eye out for an impressive bird in the fields. Wild turkeys, sometimes over a dozen, are a common sight. They’re a streamlined, rather smaller version of the ones that land on our Thanksgiving dinner tables, though men can still walk 48 inches from beak tip to tail tip.

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The turkey originally comes from Central America. It was, in fact, the largest domestic animal that the Aztecs raised for food. They had several names for this bird – wild ones were called “huehxōlōtl”, pronounced for example “Wex-a-lottle”, and the domestic turkey “totolin”. So how did an American bird get the name of an Asian country?

The turkeys arrived in Europe around 1519, courtesy of the Spaniards who brought them from Mexico. Probably because they could not pronounce the Aztec name, the Spanish called the turkey “pavo” (peacock) because of its tail-spreading appearance and strutting. The peacock finally became “pavo real” – the royal peacock.

Portuguese traders were mainly responsible for the spread of the turkey in Europe as well as for its current name. By the time they started the turkey trade, the Portuguese were already responsible for spreading the African bird we now know as the guinea fowl in Europe. The French and English called the guinea fowl “galine de turquie”, Turkish chicken or turkey cock. The guinea fowl was sometimes called “poule d’Inde” (hen of India). At a time when universal education was irrelevant and maps and trade routes were closely guarded trade secrets, “India” meant not only the Indian subcontinent, but Ethiopia and several other exotic locations as well. To this day, the French word for “turkey” is “dindon”. The same name was used for both guinea fowl and turkey for many years, although the distinction was certainly clear by the time of Charles Dickens. The goose was the usual festival bird at the time, but in “A Christmas Carol” the turkey was as big as Tiny Tim and certainly not a guinea fowl!

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In 1526 an enterprising Yorkshire man named William Strickland acquired some turkeys on his travels and it is reported that he sold them for tuppence apiece in Bristol. That’s the equivalent of a little more than $ 21 in today’s money. If that seems cheap for a turkey, keep in mind that they were probably more the size of a large chicken than the chickens we raise today.

Turkeys have a reputation for being stupid birds. Maybe the turkey isn’t quite as bright, although the story of them standing in the rain and opening their beaks until they drown is definitely a fiction. How smart do you have to be in a barn yard? Your food is delivered and you are safe from predators, at least until the hand distributing the food shows up with a hatchet one day.

Wild turkeys, however, are some of the most cunning wild birds that are notoriously difficult to catch. Among the Aztecs, the wild turkey was actually a form sometimes adopted by the trickster god Tezcatlipoca (tez-cut-la-PO-ka).

The First Nations had their own names for the turkey, depending on the region. The Powhatan, the people to which Pocahontas belonged, call the turkey “Monanow”. The Narragansett in what is now southern New England called them “nahenan”, the Abnaki (Maine) “nehani” and the Natick in Massachusetts called them “neyhom”. As befits a bird that is used for celebrations, the turkey symbolizes abundance, food, harvest of the fruits of your labor, generosity and community.

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Peterson’s field guide to the birds places wild turkeys firmly in the United States, from the eastern and southwestern states south to Mexico. Although not native to Canada, they have been successfully introduced in many places north of the border, including Algoma. They do well in open woodland and of course on farmland, where insects and plants are plentiful.

The idea that turkeys can’t fly comes back from the chickens in the barn. Wild turkeys – actually any turkey that doesn’t grow too big and heavy – can fly. Modern domestic turkeys have been selectively bred to produce very large pectoral muscles, as white meat is valued for the dining table. These muscles, which are part of the system that enables a bird to fly, have grown so large and heavy that a domestic turkey can no longer lift off the ground when it reaches its potential weight. Most domestic turkeys are bred by artificial insemination because the males are too heavy to mate naturally.

Here’s some news for you – by and large, where we’ve been hosting harvest festivals since the harvest, turkey is a newcomer to Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. The first recorded turkey dinner for a Thanksgiving festival was in Halifax in 1763. Citizens held a festival to thank them for the end of the Seven Years’ War, which featured pumpkin, pumpkin and turkey.

At what is sometimes referred to as Canada’s First Thanksgiving Day meal, Sir Martin Frobisher and his men ate salt beef, cookies, and “mushy peas,” likely a pale pulp made from cooked dried peas to celebrate their safe arrival on the North American Continent. And the biscuit? Forget your grandma’s cookies. Frobisher and his men would have eaten Hartzack, boat bread, a thick, hard rectangle that was probably infested with weevils. It was customary to knock the biscuit on the table before eating to scare away the weevils. This tariff is the same one that brought them across the Atlantic, so “feast” can be a relative term. Maybe you don’t want to go that traditional.

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But you don’t have to hunt your own turkey, any more than you have to grow your own pumpkin and potatoes – though more of us have done so in recent years. Go to the local grocery store and you will find turkeys galore; Free-range turkeys, butter-fortified, vegetable-oil fortified, pre-filled turkeys, young turkeys for small families and huge bargain hunters for large families. You can get a turducken if you like – a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed chicken – or a tofurkey, a turkey-shaped piece of tofu, because even vegans seem to like their Thanksgiving dinner to look traditional. You can even buy a fresh turkey if you have refrigerator space to keep it cold until you put it in the oven.

A word about the cranberry sauce. The First Nations knew and used the cranberry because of its tart taste and its vitamin C-rich meat. As a seasonal berry, it would probably have appeared at every harvest festival. It was not until 1912 that cranberry sauce was put on sale as a commercial product.

Sir Martin Frobisher’s feast, although sometimes referred to as Canada’s first harvest festival, did not include a single North American meal. In contrast, all of the traditional foods that go into a modern Thanksgiving dinner – turkey, potatoes, pumpkin, cranberries – are New World foods. With the rise of gardening in COVID times, it may even be possible to have all of these things ready for your own table. You could even bag your own wild turkey if you wanted. the birds have developed so well in Algoma that a turkey hunting season was established in 2017.

However, you are well advised to keep your sanity to yourself. This wild, cunning turkey wasn’t the Aztec god of tricksters for nothing!

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