Monday, 22 December 2014

So Why Do We Call It Turkey?

One of the things I've sort of wondered about is how the turkey ended up being called that.

The modern domesticated turkey is descended from one of six subspecies of wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, found in present-day Mexico.

Genetic studies suggest it was domesticated twice, around 200 BC and 1000 AD. The meat and eggs were major sources of protein and feathers were used for decorative purposes.

And yes, wild ones do roost in trees, just like the one in this photo!

Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people known to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. It was a little larger than the traditional goose, but with a lot more meat and a refreshing new taste.

It was brought to England by merchants trading in the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean. The English called them “Turkey merchants” because that whole area was then part of the Turkish empire. The new bird was called a “Turkey bird”, or “Turkey cock”. Although an expensive and exclusive meat, the turkey itself was clearly a familiar domestic fowl. Shakespeare knew his audience would understand the reference to the turkey’s display of aggression involving strutting and puffing out its breast when he described the posturings of Malvolio in Twelfth Night:
  SIR TOBY BELCH: Here’s an overwheening rogue!
  FABIAN: O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him; how he jets under his   advanced plumes!

Nearly everyone else, including the Turks, thought they originated in India, so it's widely called something like the “bird of India” (for example, indianischer Hahn in old German, and gall dindi, or bird of India, in Catalan). 

In a few languages, including Danish, Dutch, Finnish and Norwegian, the bird was named instead as coming from Calicut (Dutch kalkoense hahn, Danish kalkun), a seaport on the Malabar coast of India, the same place after which calico is named. This might have something to do with Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, who landed in Calcutta in 1498, about 20 years before the bird was introduced to Britain. And this was a time when Central America was called "The Spanish Indies" or the "New Indies", which shows people might have been a bit puzzled about just where these new lands were. 

Domestic turkey breeds developed in Britain were introduced into North America by the colonists who settled New England and Virginia, who were apparently surprised to find it living there wild. But the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada is apparently rather more modern.

While the tradition of turkey at Christmas spread throughout England in the 17th century, it was something of a luxury before the late 19th century. One of the sources of information on things like this is tracking when things appear in written records. In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol of 1843, Bob Cratchit's family had a goose before Scrooge bought them a turkey.
The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.

Turkey production in the UK was centred in East Anglia, using two breeds, the Norfolk Black and the Norfolk Bronze (also known as Cambridge Bronze) which arrived there the early 16th century via Spain. These would be driven as flocks, after shoeing (yes, they wore shoes), to markets in London from the 17th century onwards.

Intensive farming of turkeys from the late 1940s dramatically cut the price, making it more affordable for all. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later improvements in disease control increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants has made fresh turkey inexpensive as well as readily available.

So, what did people eat at Christmas before turkey?

In North America, before the 20th century, it was probably pork ribs. Turkeys were once abundant in the wild that they were eaten throughout the year. Pigs were usually slaughtered in November, so pork ribs were rarely available at times other than the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year.

Among the British working classes, it was probably beef or goose. Or, for the poor, anything they could get, I guess.

Mass-produced turkey is available all year round and is less of a special novelty. Today, celebrity chefs encourage us to return to goose and to try other meats. I've had goose a few times, and it's certainly a tasty meat. But I only eat turkey at Christmas, so it's worth treating myself to a good quality one and cooking it carefully.

Wild turkeys, although technically the same species as the domesticated ones, reportedly have a more intense gamier flavour and almost all the meat is "dark", even the breast. Older heritage breeds also differ in flavour. I'll see if I can get one of these breeds next year and let you know if I can spot a difference.

So, the traditional British Christmas dinner is centred around a bird from central America, brought to us by traders from the Ottoman Empire.  

What about the trimmings? Potatoes, sprouts and cranberry sauce? And mince pies? Christmas cake? Christmas pudding? The butterflies in my head are telling me this needs some research...


  1. Ian, fascinating, thanks. following a disaster with an order and the arrival of a birf too large for my oven, we've had Scottish beef in this house for many years. like American colonists, however, I enjoy it out of season. Does that make me a traditionalist? Anne Stenhouse

  2. Hi Anne. Thanks for the feedback, delighted to know you enjoyed the posting. For me, it's the household or family traditions which make it Christmas, stuff like the old cake and pudding recipes, or in your case, preferring beef. I've had goose a few times, and always had to joint it just to get the darn thing inside my oven! Hope you and your family had a lovely Christmas.