restricted access 3. The English Turkey; or, How the Turkey Cooked the Christmas Goose

From: The Turkey

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3 The English Turkey; or, How the Turkey Cooked the Christmas Goose Only English-speaking countries use the word turkey to refer to the Meleagris gallopavo. Many explanations, most of them fanciful, have been offered for its origin. Some have proposed an onomatopoetic derivation, claiming that the turkey named itself because it makes a “turk, turk” sound, but neither wild nor domesticated bird does that.1 Others claim that the turkey’s head looks like a fez.2 The fez, however, was introduced into Turkey in 1826 to replace the turban and therefore could not have been the source for a sixteenth-century word. Still others maintain that the name derived from the Hindi or Tamil word toka (or taus), which means “peacock.”That evolved into tukki (taūs, or tarnegol hodu),a Hebrew word that means “peacock” or “big hen.” Jewish merchants from Spain then brought the bird (and the word) to England. There the word was initially spelled turky, which eventually became turkey.3 Unfortunately for this tale, however, Spain expelled the Jews in 1492 before Christopher Columbus left for the New World. This story was then revised to proclaim that Jewish “turkey merchants,” engaged in trade between the eastern Mediterranean (then controlled by Turkey) and England, stopped off in Spain and picked up turkeys before proceeding to England. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, the term turkey merchant originated in the seventeenth century—long after the turkey had acquired its English name—and even then the term referred to those who raised, drove, and sold the birds in England. It had nothing to do with the nation of Turkey or with Jewish merchants .4 Still others have speculated that the bird’s name came about because the cock’s peculiar gait resembles the proud “Turk01 .1-136_Smit.indd 26 8/1/06 3:45:31 PM ish strut.”5 Yet few in sixteenth-century England had ever seen a Turk, so that, too, is an unlikely explanation for how the bird acquired its English name. To make matters more complicated, the word turkey was used in England before the arrival of Meleagris gallopavo in Europe. Like other Europeans, the English confused the turkey with guinea fowl and other birds. The word turkey likely referred to the guinea fowl at first, when the term meant “strange” or “exotic.” The word became part of the name for other edibles as well, for example, turkey corn (maize from the Americas). Whatever its initial referent, when the New World turkey became commercially dominant among fowl in England it retained the name turkey and other birds acquired other names. Precisely when the turkey arrived in England has been endlessly debated. Some maintain that British explorers along the North American coast acquired wild turkeys and were the first to introduce them into England. No evidence has surfaced suggesting that is true, but even if it were, the introduction would have made little difference. Eastern North America only had wild turkeys at that time, and they did not reproduce in captivity. The first generally accepted reference to the turkey in England is dated 1541, when Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s archbishop of Canterbury, proclaimed that only one large fish or fowl such “as Crane, Swan, Turkeycocke” should be served at meals for ecclesiastics.6 Turkeys must have been relatively common in England by that date, and perhaps the clergy was a little too well-fed. There is no evidence indicating that anyone obeyed Cranmer’s injunction, for turkeys flourished thereafter in England and the clergy seems to have eaten their share. Turkeys were relatively easy to raise in England, and turkey farms proliferated . By the 1570s, large flocks were being raised in Norfolk, which had vast resources of grains and buckwheat.7 Turkeys are eclectic in their eating habits . Although they will consume many things not otherwise eaten on farms, such as acorns, and substances considered harmful, such as insects, worms, and weeds, they also can destroy agricultural crops. Hugh Plat discussed this in his cookbook Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594). If turkeys were not penned, Plat reported, they ate and trampled crops and were prone to wandering off into the woods or to a neighbor’s farm. To avoid that, Plat recommended that turkeys be kept in “coopes” that were “so straight and narrowe as that the hen or capon may onely feed himselfe and roost therein, not being able to turn his bodie, thereby perswading themselves that wanting motion...


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