Monday, December 04, 2006

Animal of the Week December 04, 2006 -- Tis the season.... to be eaten

And what was on the door of Animal of the Week's advent calendar this morning?

Maleagris gallopavo (turkey). Over 45 million turkeys will have been eaten over Thanksgiving in the US, then just a few weeks later another 22 million will be eaten in US at Christmas, in the UK we’ll get through another 11 million or so… these are tough times for this week's animal.

The popularity of turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving is actuality a recent addition to harvest and midwinter traditions. The only foodstuffs documented at the Plymouth pilgrims' feast with the Wampanoag in 1621 were venison and waterfowl, Queen Elizabeth favoured goose at Harvest Festival, Americans probably later switched to turkey as they were more abundant. Until the middle of the 1900s turkey was something of a luxury in the UK. In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has had some festive goodwill spooked into him, he saves the Cratchits from the "goose club" by purchasing a prized turkey for them.

Intensive farming and the development of new double-breasted breeds (large and well-dressed) has made turkeys a popular choice for large family gatherings. Male turkeys, called gobblers or toms, naturally woo females, or hens, by displaying with their bright blue snood (the extendable protrusion above their beak) and wattle, a fanned tail, and elaborate gobbling. Many industrially farmed turkeys cannot mate of their own accord (the toms are lucky if they can walk, let alone gobble) and so the females have to be artificially inseminated. That is, unless they manage to reproduce without mating, as turkeys are want to do. Traditional breeds of turkey resemble more closely their wild North American forebears and are able to breed naturally, walk, run, and fly. They also taste nicer and require less farm trickery to raise them.

Surprisingly nippy, wild turkeys can fly well and can run at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour! They need to. In the southern USA, fried turkey is a popular dish, and a Turkeyfryer has been developed in which a whole bird can be deep fried, I was amused but not surprised to find out about this.

This is turning into a bit of an essay, but I couldn't finish without pondering why an American bird is called turkey. There are several theories about its origins: it's a corruption of the native word, firkee; it's derived from turka, the Indian (Asian sub-continent) name for peacock, the Americas were originally thought to be attached to India; it comes from a tendency for English speakers to name exotic things after exotic places; or perhaps most likely, it was originally thought to be related to the African helmeted guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), which was called a Turkey-cock as it was imported to Europe through Turkey, and so the turkey was also called a Turkey-cock. The name stuck in North America, but when the guinea fowl's origins were better understood, they were renamed. Convoluted I know, but I like it that way.


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