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The Great American Turkey
by Peggy M. Baker,
Director & Librarian, Pilgrim Society
November - December 2000

I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of
our Country... The Turkey is a much more respectable Bird, and withal
a true original Native of America.

Benjamin Franklin, 1784

The Turkey in America

The turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) is a native game bird of North America, originally found in abundance
from Maine to Central America and from the Atlantic to present-day Colorado.

The turkey was first domesticated by the Aztecs of Mexico. The Spanish took the domesticated turkey from Mexico to Europe about 1519. Turkeys were being bred in England by 1541. Roast turkey quickly became a popular holiday dish in England.

William Bradford reported that the Pilgrims found a "great store of wild turkies" during the autumn of 1621, famous for the "First Thanksgiving." We don’t know for certain, however, that the Pilgrims had turkey at that harvest feast.

Later in the 17th century, other English colonists introduced the European-bred strains of the domesticated turkey (descendants of the Mexican turkey) to northeastern America. In addition to the domesticated turkeys, the original wild turkey stock still remained.

A National Symbol

English settlers brought their taste for the holiday turkey with them to the New World. Turkey soon became associated with Thanksgiving, the only significant holiday celebrated in New England.

As New Englanders moved west and south with the expansion of America, Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Thanksgiving joined the two previously- established annual national holidays, George Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July, to form a trio of holidays dedicated to celebrating American history and the American experience.

As one of the preeminent symbols of Thanksgiving, the turkey quickly became entwined with Uncle Sam, patriotism, and America.

The Eagle, proud bird! May he soar round and round
As he mounts up still higher and higher!
While the turkey, we trust, will still roost near the ground
Within reach when occasions require.
For we're sure there is none who will care to deny,
In the name of good cheer and good living,
That the eagle's all right for the Fourth of July,
But the turkey's the bird for Thanksgiving.

From: Our National Bird by Nixon Waterman, 1905.

The Turkey in the White House

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has given the President a live turkey at Thanksgiving. Each President, beginning with Harry Truman, has granted the turkey a "presidential pardon." The turkeys retire to a farm to live out their natural lives. (The President is also given a dressed turkey for his dinner table.) In 1863, President Lincoln, at the urging of his young son Tad, "pardoned" the White House Christmas turkey (Tad had made a pet of "Jack"). Bill Clinton recalled this incident at the time of his 1997 Thanksgiving presidential pardon for Willis, a 60-pound turkey.




The Turkey in the Wild

William Wood, writing from Massachusetts in the 1630s, described the native American wild turkey:

The Turkey is a very large Bird, of a blacke colour, yet white in flesh; much bigger than our English Turkey. He hath the use of his long legs so ready, that he can runne as fast as a Dogge, and flye as well as a goose: of these sometimes there will be forty, threescore, and a hundred of a flocke, sometimes more and sometimes lesse; their feeding is Acorns, Hawes, and Berries, some of them get a haunt to frequent our English corne.

French gastronome Brillat-Savarin enthused about a wild turkey hunt during a trip to America in 1794:

Our start led us into the midst of a flock of wild turkeys. They arose, one after another, in quick noisy flight. I fired at it through a break in the woods, and it fell. During the whole of our trip homeward, I was considering how best I should cook my turkey…

As the last morsel of turkey disappeared, there arose from the whole table the words: "Very good! Exceedingly good! Oh! dear sir, what a glorious bit!"


In the 1600s, the wild turkey was a very common bird through the eastern two-thirds of the United States. By 1900, however, hunting and the destruction of their natural woodland habitat had pushed the wild turkey to the brink of extinction. Protected now by strict laws and modern game-management programs, the wild turkey has made a spectacular comeback.

The Turkey in the Baryard

All domestic turkeys have a common ancestor -- the Mexican turkey domesticated by the Aztecs, taken to Europe and returned to New England by colonial settlers. Over time, several strains of domesticated turkeys have been bred. The two most common today are the Bronze Turkey and the White Turkey.

How many feathers does a turkey have?
Click here for the answer!

Today, over 7000 farmers raise turkeys in the United States. Of these, 4000 are small, seasonal farmers. Only 3000 farms sell over 2000 turkeys each year. Most large-scale farmers breed the white turkey. Its feathers leave no discoloration under the turkey’s skin.

Domestic turkeys have always been corn fed. Today, their diet is balanced with soybean meal mixed with vitamin and mineral supplements. It takes about 84 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound tom turkey.

Improvements in genetics, feed, and management practices have made domesticated turkeys more efficient at converting feed to protein than wild turkeys. The average domestic tom turkey takes 18 weeks to reach a market weight of 30 pounds. The hen usually takes 14 weeks to maturity and weighs 15 pounds.


Commercial Production

Turkey production in the U.S. has tripled since 1970. Production value in 1996 was more than $7.9 billion. North Carolina is the Number One state in turkey production, followed by Minnesota and Arkansas.

According to the National Turkey Federation, 275 million turkeys were raised in 1998. 45 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving. 91% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

With the average turkey purchased weighing 15 pounds, 675 million pounds of turkey were eaten in the United States at Thanksgiving!



The Turkey in the Oven:
Historic recipes for the Thanksgiving turkey

Before 1796, the only cookbooks available in America were written for English cooks. Amelia Simmons was the first American to write a cookbook for American cooks, using native ingredients. Her American Cookery was published in 1796. Click here for Amelia Simmon’s recipe for turkey.

Recipes the 19th century often began in the barnyard. Directions were vague: oven temperatures for coal and wood stoves could not be exactly calibrated and the measurements for ingredients had not yet been standardized. Click here for an 1883 recipe for roasting turkey

With the proliferation of restaurants in the 1880s, professional chefs began writing cookbooks to introduce American households to exotic ingredients and more complex methods of food preparation. Click here for an 1894 recipe for Dinde a la Francaise (Turkey, French Style).

The first American cookbook to standardize weights and measures and to give precise measurements was the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer. Within ten years, Farmer’s clear, sensible, yet interesting recipes had changed American cooking forever. Click here for a 1905 recipe by Fannie Farmer.

Turkey "LITE"

How do you send a turkey to a faraway friend?

Mary had a little turkey,
With feathers bronze and black,
And when she shooed it from the door,
It was sure to wander back.
It followed her about the yard,
And gobble-gobbled at ‘er;
The more she fed, the more it ate,
And plumper grew and fatter.
And when the turkey got as fat
And lazy as a sinner
Mary killed and roasted it
For her Thanksgiving dinner.



Bird class mail!

Turkey Trivia

How much turkey does the average American eat?

What nationality likes turkey best?

What countries buy American turkey?

You have gobbled,
Mister Turkey,
in a way quite impolite,
You have gobbled
in the morning,
at noon, and late at night;
You have
all the autumn through,
And now,
Mister Turkey,
WE are going
to gobble you!

At maturity, turkeys have (on average) 3500 feathers.

Each year, Americans consume (on average) 18 pounds of turkey apiece.

The only people who eat more turkey than Americans (18 pounds of turkey apiece each year) are Israelis -- at 27 pounds of turkey apiece. After Israel and the U.S., turkey consumption is highest in France (15 pounds), Italy (12 pounds) and England (10 pounds).

The top 4 export markets for American turkeys are Mexico, Russia, Hong Kong, and Poland.

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