Not many barnyard critters take one back to the palace of Montezuma. But this is the case with the turkey, which like the tomato, potato, and tobacco, to name a few, is a New World food. When Cortez and other Spanish explorers reached Central America and Mexico in the early 1500’s they encountered large flocks of domesticated and wild turkeys. In particular, Montezuma, ruler of the Aztecs kept flocks of black, brown, red, and white turkeys in his palace aviary in Mexico City. Apparently it was principally for its feathers, used for the court ceremonial robes and other ritual uses, that the Aztecs prized the turkey.
Between 1500 and 1519 turkeys were first taken to Spain; by 1520 they had reached Italy; by 1538 they were in France; and found in England by 1541. By the middle of the sixteenth century, a hundred years before the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth, it is known that turkey was a feature of European holiday feasts and weddings, and by 1570 turkey recipes appeared in print. Amazingly within a century of its discovery the turkey had become an international phenomenon.
Turkeys completed their trans-Atlantic roundtrip when they arrived with the English colonists who founded Jamestown. It is not known whether their 1619 “thanksgiving feast” included turkeys on the menu. When that ill-fated enterprise came to its unfortunate end, it is probable that any remaining turkeys escaped into the wild, introducing the genes from Central America and Mexican varieties into the Eastern wild turkey population.
It is known that by 1629, European domesticated turkeys were taken to Massachusetts. This was, it should be noted, over 100 years after the bird had been introduced into Europe. “According to contemporaneous records, “wild fowl” (folklore says “turkey”) was served as the main course at the first Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth Colony. If indeed, they feasted on turkey it may not have been wild turkey, as is commonly assumed, but the domestic version brought from Europe. Interestingly, long before the Puritans reached Plymouth Rock, turkey was associated in the European mind with festive celebrations.
In early colonial times, varieties of turkeys bred by the Europeans, such as the White Holland, the Norfolk Black, and the Spanish Black, were brought to the Eastern seaboard. These European strains were smaller than the Eastern wild turkeys that the colonists encountered. They, therefore crossed their domesticated breed with the wild birds to produce larger and more vigorous turkey stocks. It is by this circuitous route that today’s American turkey breeds have come down to us.
By the 1800’s most American farmers kept small flocks of turkeys as a seasonal crop. They were valued not just as food but also as a form of pre-pesticide pest control, particularly in the tobacco producing areas of Virginia. Additionally, their feathers were valued for fans, dusters, garments and quill pens. In contrast to today, they were then not just a holiday meal but were found on tables year round. As one English traveler wrote in 1780: “”At dinners, there are frequently four or five turkies on the table…I will mention that I do not recollect to have dined a single day from my arrival in America, til I left Virginia without a turkey on the table.”
Through a slow process of selective breeding during the nineteenth century other varieties of turkeys were added to the original white Holland and Norfolk and Spanish black varieties. The black varieties when crossed with wild birds became the foundation for today’s Bronze, Narragansett, and Slate varieties. The Narragansett turkey is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where it was developed, and descends from crossing wild birds with Norfolk Blacks. Another variety, the Bourbon Red, was bred in the late 1800’s in Bourbon County in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region by J.F. Barbee, who created it by crossing Buff, Bronze, and White Holland turkeys. (Thus it is an amusing anachronism when the film “Gone With the Wind” opens with a flock of Bourbon Reds—above—scampering across the lawn of Tara just prior to the Civil War. Scarlett, as usual, was ahead of her time.) Another breed, the Royal Palm, a small sized but strikingly beautiful turkey, was a late comer first appearing as a genetic sport in the 1920’s on the farm of Enoch Carson of Lake Worth, Florida.
We at Turkana Farms are focused on raising Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, and Spanish Blacks, and, occasionally include Royal Palms and Blue Slates in our flocks. These varieties together with those mentioned above are now known as Heritage Turkeys. It was these varieties, raised on small farmsteads, that prior to World War II, filled the culinary and holiday needs of American households. And then, sad to say, something happened, something of a momentous nature, which would turn out to be one of the most transforming moments in the evolution of the domesticated turkey.
After almost four hundred years of domestication and selective breeding, by 1900, the turkey had changed little in its body conformation and virtually not at all in the way it was raised. At that point some 6 million turkeys were sold annually in the U.S. They were raised on pasture on small family farms and often were driven in flocks overland to population centers, preceded by someone scattering cracked corn to keep them moving in the right direction (the “turkey trot,” as it was sometimes called), usually to be sold to consumers live.
I got to witness this stage of production when, in the early 1960’s, I was living in Turkey, which was then stuck in a time warp. Contemplating a Thanksgiving dinner for our American friends, we discussed the matter with Nebahat, who cooked for us. She took charge and six weeks or so before the event, came home with a live turkey, which was a bit emaciated from its long turkey trot into Izmir. Nebahat covered the kitchen floor with newspaper, and tied the turkey to one of the legs of the kitchen table near a pan of water and a pile of cracked corn. As it gradually, we hoped, fattened up for the big day, we became friends, and were soon on a first-name basis, calling it Hindi (the Turkish word for turkey). When the time came, Nebahat wielded the axe, and plucked and gutted the bird in the kitchen. An unforeseen consequence: Once the bird was dead, its fleas jumped off and infested the kitchen. But that was not the worst. As our twelve guests sat at table expectantly, Nebahat entered, platter in hand, to “present” the bird, which, to our great disappointment, looked like nothing so much as a tiny shriveled up old lady. It was with difficulty, but amidst great hilarity, that we managed to scrounge a taste of turkey for everyone.
Thanksgiving dinner, alive in the kitchen, was a distant memory in the U.S. by the time I had my Turkish turkey experience. Production had long since become big business. Two factors account for this: growing market demand from increasingly affluent Americans and the promise of high profits for the producers. By 1900, the cost of pasture-raising a turkey was about eight cents a pound, while retail prices ranged between twelve and twenty cents a pound, often reaching forty cents a pound around holiday time. At the time, no other meat was more profitable. Naturally, this appealed to then-emerging industrial-farming interests, who set out to expand production to meet growing consumer demand. The small family turkey farm was doomed. From 6 million birds in 1900, production jumped to 21 million by 1934, 32 million by 1948, 127 million by 196l, to a staggering 270 million by 2008 (17% of them consumed for Thanksgiving alone).
To increase profit margins, the industrial model required larger birds, and because of the American consumer’s preference for white meat, a blockier, big-breasted body. The Bronze variety, the biggest and most numerous breed at the time, was selectively bred to become the “Broad Breasted Bronze,” which by the 1930’s and 40’s was the dominant breed in production in the U.S.. For a time the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, and White Holland, what we now refer to as heritage breeds, managed to coexist, although in gradually shrinking numbers.
In the past, turkeys had been sold live, but in the new industrial world, they were processed and packaged, and consumers began making their choices based on the appearance of the carcasses. Colored birds have dark pinfeathers and, even after plucking, a residue of melanin pigment in the follicles. White feathered birds, like the White Holland, have pin feathers that are far less visible. So, by the 1960’s, the dark-feathered Broad Breasted Bronze had been crossed with White Hollands to produce the variety known as Large Whites (or Big Breasted Whites), the breed that now comprises ninety per cent of the market.
The intensive selective breeding carried out in industrial turkey production was also aimed at bringing turkeys to market size much faster, thus considerably reducing costs and increasing profits. A few summers ago, we had a convincing demonstration of the industry’s success in this sphere. In order to buy a small group of young Narragansett turkeys from a neighbor, we agreed to his condition to also buy a few young Large Whites that he had. We raised the two varieties together over the same time period, allowing them to feed the same way, and we were amazed that by Thanksgiving several of the Large Whites, dressed, tipped the scales at over forty pounds, while our heritage breed turkeys were eighteen pounds at the largest, with most in the twelve to fifteen pound range. The economic advantages of the Large White seemed obvious.
This twentieth century transformation of the turkey has not been without its costs, however. Early in its transformation, the new turkey lost its ability to roost, eventually it could no longer mate, and today it can no longer fly or run. Indeed, as it approaches market day, the turkey often suffers from leg and heart problems. One Large White in our improvisational experiment, which could, at most, waddle as market day approached, dropped dead suddenly one afternoon, presumably from a heart attack.
Sadly, this most lively and wily of birds has, in its industrial form, lost virtually all of its natural instincts, hence its current reputation as the “dumb turkey.” In the process of its transformation, it has moved from being a pasture-raised bird that foraged for much of its food to being almost entirely raised indoors and fed on formulated poultry feeds. It has gone from being a bird that required little maintenance, to one requiring intensive medication.
But perhaps of more interest to the consumer: The shift from the freedom of pasture to the confinement of indoor sheds has reduced the flavor of what was once a very tasty bird. An unforeseen consequence of bringing the industrial turkey to market size in such a short period of time—these birds never reach adolescence. It should be remembered that it is after adolescence that birds begin to put on fat. And fat, as we all know, is flavor. In contrast, heritage breeds take twice as long to reach market size, and, in the process, pass into that stage that many of us are all-too familiar with: the time of life when fat becomes a growing presence. Raised in a pasture setting, the heritage breed runs and flies, developing muscle as it forages for a wide and varied diet, and it lives long enough to put on fat.
That’s why we are participating in this movement to return to the turkey that America once knew. Growing public awareness of the value of heritage breeds promises a new and happier chapter for the turkey as it enters its fifth century as part of the American diet. It is not, in our opinion, a food fad; it is an effort to return to food as it once was.