restricted access 7. The Well-bred Turkey; or, How the Turkey Lost its Flavor

From: The Turkey

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7 The Well-bred Turkey; or, How the Turkey Lost Its Flavor Of the six major subspecies of wild turkeys, only two contributed genetically to the modern commercial turkey. The Mexican turkey (M. g. gallopavo) is believed to be the progenitor of domesticated turkeys that the Spanish found in Central America.1 These birds were exported to Europe, where they were bred in different countries. In Spain, the Black Spanish emerged; in Holland, turkey farmers developed a buff-yellow bird with a white topknot; and in Austria, an all-white variety was bred.2 These domesticated turkeys were imported into North America shortly after the initial European settlements were established in the seventeenth century. The Dutch introduced their turkeys into New Amsterdam, the French brought theirs to New Orleans and Canada, the Black Spanish variety was introduced into Florida and other Spanish colonies in the Americas, and the British introduced their turkeys into eastern North America. Through trade among these diverse settlements the varieties of domesticated turkeys commingled. In general, American farmers were little concerned with turkey breeding before the mid-nineteenth century. Most permitted their birds to roam freely about the farm, where they ate insects and plants and mated at will. Domesticated European birds bred with each other and with the wild eastern turkeys (M. g. silvestris), creating a true “melting-pot” bird. Crossbreeds were mentioned by John Mortimer, who was English, as early as 1708. He “knew a Gentleman that had a Hen-Turkey of the wild Kind from Virginia; of which an English Cock he raised a very fine Breed, that bred wild in the Fields.” It was much larger than the domesticated tur01 .1-136_Smit.indd 83 8/1/06 3:45:43 PM 84  .  the turkey keys then in England.3 Likewise, Richard Bradley, a British agricultural writer, reported in 1736 that there was “a Breed in some part of the West of England, between the Turkey and the Virginia Bustard, which produces the largest sort I have yet seen. I have eaten part of one of them, which I judged to excell our common Turkey abundantly in Fineness of Flesh.”4 In 1750 William Ellis, also of England, observed that there were “two sorts of this species, the common Suffolk or Norfolk turkey and the Blue Virginia sort. The first are bred in vast numbers in those counties, from whence London is chiefly supplied with these excellent fowls, as appears by the many droves of them, frequently seen on the roads thither.”5 In 1779 breeding turkeys was described in great detail in London ’s Farmer’s Magazine, which mentioned White Suffolk and darker Norfolk varieties in Great Britain as well as the Virginia Bronze.6 The matter of how to raise turkeys had been a subject of concern dating to their initial arrival in Europe in the sixteenth century. Most agriculture books mentioned turkey husbandry, but the bird itself was of minor importance. In England, the interest in poultry raising was piqued by the translation and publication of a book by a French biologist, René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, The Art of Hatching and Bringing Up Domestick Fowls (1750), which laid out the best and most current scientific knowledge on poultry.7 Raising turkeys became important enough to be included in sections of such works.8 John Lawrence (“Bonington Moubray”), who was British, summarized what was generally known about the subject in A Practical Treatise on Breeding, Rearing and Fattening All Kinds of Domestic Poultry (1816) and urged the creation of incubators and hatcheries. His book went through several editions in England, and copies were sold in the United States. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookbooks, newspapers, and books on agriculture also offered advice on raising turkeys. Homemakers, for instance, were urged to plunge newly hatched chicks into cold water and forcefeed them with peppercorns, advice repeated for decades.9 Books also advised how to fatten turkeys by cramming them for two weeks with rice, oats, barley , mashed potatoes, eggs, beans, buckwheat, and milk. Thrice-daily feeding was recommended. A French chef, Alexis Soyer, reported that in Provence, in a practice reminiscent of the gavage of geese and ducks to produce foie gras, turkeys were force-fed walnuts, which Soyer believed gave their flesh a richer, more oily taste.10 01.1-136_Smit.indd 84 8/1/06 3:45:44 PM Hen Fever In the mid-eighteenth century few American farmers saw the advantage of breeding turkeys. In fact, Americans...