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The Authentic Background Of The Thanksgiving Turkey

Image Source: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

The inception of the first Thanksgiving turkey in American lore dates back to the year 1621, becoming the definitive centerpiece on Thanksgiving feasts each subsequent year. According to the National Turkey Federation (eatturkey.org), an estimated 46 million turkeys are savored annually during Thanksgiving celebrations. Nonetheless, historians posit that the turkey likely did not make an appearance at the inaugural Thanksgiving feast, with duck, goose, and venison posing as more probable delicacies. So, when did the turkey ascend to Thanksgiving stardom, and where did it originate from?

The turkey’s narrative regarding the eminent American holiday is rather intricate. Even the naming of the bird, “turkey,” shrouds itself in ambiguity. The avian species has been dubbed different names across various regions worldwide. In North America, where they roam abundantly, the turkey (of the genus Meleagris) represents a domesticated wild fowl. There exist two prevalent hypotheses regarding the nomenclature of the North American fowl.

The initial theory traces back to Guinea fowl, an avian species first discovered in Africa. The resemblance between the Guinea fowl and the turkey prompted the former to be dubbed as the “turkey cock” upon its importation to Europe in 1619, having been first transported to Turkey by African traders.

The feral fowl which underwent domestication in North America is believed to have been transported by English settlers in the 17th century. The term “turkey cock” was eventually shortened to “turkey,” a name that persists to this day.

An alternative theory suggests that the bird entered North America through Middle Eastern merchants, thus inheriting the moniker “turkey” owing to its purported Turkish roots. Another viewpoint proposes that the bird was introduced to Europe in 1519 from Spain, where it was savored as a delicacy amongst the aristocracy. In 1541, it was imported to England and subsequently carried by settlers to North America in the 17th century.

It’s evident that the turkey’s journey to the American Thanksgiving spread encompasses various conjectures and serpentine pathways.

One might surmise that the turkey is called a “turkey” in the country of Turkey (a bit of whimsy, right?), yet surprisingly, that isn’t the case. In Turkey, the avian creature is referred to as a “hindi,” translating to “bird from India.” This Indian association transcends into the bird’s nomenclature in several other languages including Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian. In France, it is named “dinde,” a truncation of “coq d’inde,” which also denotes India. In a peculiar twist, in India, the fowl is known as a “turki”!

In Vietnam, it is labeled a “Western chicken.” In Chinese, it is symbolized as a “fire chicken.” Malaysians term it as a “Dutch chicken.” The roster of names for the turkey extends infinitely.

A resolute fact is that the contemporary perception of the turkey made its debut in the mid-1500s. William Shakespeare referenced the turkey cock in his play “Henry V” circa 1597.

Given such a convoluted and storied past, how did the turkey evolve into the cherished American holiday tradition it embodies presently? The likely explanation harkens back to a passage in the documented diaries of settler William Bradford, who recounted that during the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims pursued wild turkeys.

Bradford’s diaries lay dormant for over a century before resurfacing and being published in 1856. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a nationwide day of thanksgiving and prayer; however, it was not until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln decreed the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving.

Subsequently, in 1870, Congress designated the final Thursday of November as a national holiday. The turkey swiftly emerged as the preferred option for the festive meal as its size was conducive to feeding an entire family. Being a less commonly served meat compared to chicken, beef, or pork, it seemed more of a gourmet treat. Additionally, the bird’s delectable taste appealed to many, a sentiment that still holds true today.

Image Source: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

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