Even if you won’t be roasting a turkey at Thanksgiving later this week, there’s no denying that this iconic bird has become part of the American story.
Other than on “Turkey Day” itself, however, is eating turkeys as uniquely American as we think it is?
The idea that Benjamin Franklin wanted a turkey, rather than a bald eagle, to be the national symbol of the United States is well known but probably a myth (or at least an exaggeration). Nevertheless, the bird did come to be identified with the New World, where it originated.
What few Americans today realize is that the turkey was also one of our first expatriates. By the time the Founding Fathers were supposedly caught up in the turkey versus eagle debate, Europeans had been raising and eating turkeys for over 250 years.
Christopher Columbus encountered birds that might have been turkeys, but his description of them is vague. Spanish explorers in Central America sent turkeys back to the Caribbean in the early 1500s. The first turkey probably reached Spain in 1519. A year later, one was sent to an Italian cardinal—with instructions not to eat it. By 1557, turkeys were so common (and apparently such a nuisance) in Venice that a special tax on them was passed. A pollo d’India (“chicken of the Indies”) shows up in a Roman fresco painted in 1523. Around 1560, Cosimo de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, ordered a life-size sculpture of a turkey for his villa near Florence. His cousin Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France, served seventy turkeys at a Paris banquet in 1549, six years before the first published depiction of a turkey was included in the book shown below, Pierre Belon’s L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux. (The first depiction of a turkey in a cookbook was printed in Germany in 1581.)
Turkeys were not just food for the rich. As historian Andrew Smith points out, they helped ward off starvation in Europe at a time when agricultural production was not keeping pace with population growth. The fact that the turkey is a hardy species capable of tolerating different climates helped, too. “Turkeys love hot countries, yet they can bear cold ones well enough,” the naturalist Eleazar Albin noted in 1731. Within about a hundred years of their arrival in Europe, turkeys were found on farms from Spain to Scandinavia. In 1667, a French observer said that they were driven long distances in flocks like sheep. Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds (1797) records that in England, where turkeys showed up sometime before 1541, they “are bred in great numbers in Norfolk, Suffolk, and other counties, from whence they are driven to the London markets in flocks of several hundreds each.” At least as early as 1594, people were raising extra fat turkeys by keeping them in tight pens that inhibited movement—a sad precursor of today’s industrial poultry farms.
Some turkeys, however, traveled the world. The remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic had free-range turkeys on it by 1588, even before it had permanent human residents. Portuguese sailors, realizing there was little meat on the island, probably left the flightless birds there while traveling to India so they would have food when they came back. Turkeys were marooned on other islands as well. And, of course, Europeans left turkeys in inhabited places, too. When Captain Cook stopped at Tahiti in 1777, for example, he gave turkeys and other domesticated animals to the islanders, partly as a gift, partly to ensure future food supply for other travelers.
Shown here are a few gorgeous gobblers from the McIlhenny Natural History Collection, which supports study in a wide range of disciplines, from science to social history. If you have any questions about the collection, feel free to contact us!
Andrew F. Smith, The Turkey: An American Story (2006)
Joyce Oldham Appleby, Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination (2013)