Tue 20 Dec 2011
Many people will enjoy some turkey come Christmas. I’m enjoying 13 already. There are always wild turkeys around West Marin, but at this time of the year, there are more than usual around Mitchell cabin.
A flock of 13 wild turkeys this week parades across my field toward a stockpond.
While most people feel they know a fair amount about turkeys — domestic and wild — there have been many misconceptions over the years regarding the bird, which originated in North America and was first domesticated by the Aztecs.
One misconception is that wild turkeys have no white meat. They do — just proportionately less than domestic turkeys. While many Americans prefer white meat, people in other parts of the world are more likely to prefer dark. Or so I read.
Because much of the white meat comes from a turkey’s breast, the main domestic turkey we eat, the Broad Breasted White breed, has been bred to have a large chest. One result of this breeding, however, is that domestic turkeys — unlike wild turkeys — cannot fly. In addition, because of their large size and weight, they cannot mate, and hens must be artificially inseminated.
Likewise, domestic turkeys are white because they’ve been bred to be white. White feathers don’t leave unsightly pigment spots on turkeys after they’ve been plucked.
The wild turkey is an elegant bird. Benjamin Franklin felt it should have been chosen as the national symbol instead of the the eagle, which he considered “a bird of bad moral character.” Franklin didn’t having like a carrion eater as this country’s symbol.
Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in 1524 were the first Europeans to taste turkey meat. They found it delicious and brought some turkeys back to Europe. By 1524, turkeys had reached England, where they were quickly domesticated. Shakespeare refers to a “turkey cock” in Twelfth Night written in 1601.
Turkeys got their unlikely name because the “turkey merchants,” who did business in the Ottoman Empire (of which Turkey was the seat), were were the same merchants who brought turkeys to England from North America. This led to a widely held misimpression that the turkeys were coming from Turkey. Similar mixups occurred in other cultures. The Hebrew word for turkey literally means “chicken of India” while the Turkish word for turkey is “Hindi,” which refers to Northern India.
As for the country’s name, Turkey (which in Istanbul is Türkiye) is a combination of “Türk,” which is believed to have meant human beings in an archaic version of the Turkish language, while the “iye” apparently meant land of. In short, “Turkey” originally meant land of human beings, as a friend from Turkey confirms.
Elsewhere this turkey and fawn would be at risk of ending up on someone’s dinner table come Christmas. In this time and place, however, they can safely graze together, the fawn eating grass and the turkey eating insects and seeds. Merry Christmas, and I send you my wish that also on your Bach 40, sheep may safely graze.