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Hilde Lee: Turkey's origins ruffled a few feathers

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‘I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” Benjamin Franklin expressed on Jan. 26, 1784. Franklin felt that the eagle had bad moral character. He felt that the turkey was more respectable and a true native of America. He wanted the turkey on the American flag.

Although the first settlers found turkeys on the new continent, the birds were not limited to the United States, but also were prevalent in Mexico.

Going back more in history, turkeys were known to the Greeks. They were called meleagrides, because it was Meleager, king of Macedonia, who brought them to Greece (from where nobody knows) in about 3550 B.C. The Romans liked turkeys and raised them on their farms. But why did they disappear? Turkeys became so rare that they were put into cages. There were various explanations as to the sojourn of the turkey, none of which was true. One story placed turkeys in India.

The natives in the New World called the unknown bird “peru” and thought it came from India. None of the explorers had ever reported seeing turkeys before they arrived in the New World. Since the natives of the New World had no word for this bird, the Indians called it “peru,” from the place they thought it came from. It was logical, since the potato and tomato came from Peru.

To make the history of the turkey more complicated, someone reported that an image of a turkey was found on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Who first saw this image, and what was its origin? Normans had settlements in North America from 985 to 1121, the time of the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, and probably brought back drawings of turkeys to France.

Thus, many European scholars believed that turkeys were native to the New World. At the time, the turkey was found wild nowhere else except in North America. The Cordoba expedition to Mexico reported that large turkey hens were best for better eating.

There are no records of who carried the first turkey to Europe. It was not Columbus, as there were no turkeys on the Caribbean Islands. However, Ponce de Leon, who landed in Florida in 1511, returned to Spain with 10 birds (presumably turkeys) several years later. Also, several years later, a number of Spanish explorers, such as Cortez and Coronado, could have sent turkeys back to Spain.

Montezuma reported that the Mexican nobility cooked turkeys every day. They were one of the most important Aztec foods.

When the strange foods of the New World began to reach Europe at the turn of the 15th to 16th centuries, they were received with suspicion. The tomato and potato were regarded as being poisonous, and the turkey was no exception. This was because these items were strange. Europe had large birds, although not as large as turkeys.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they found that the Aztecs had domesticated turkeys. Some of the priests who accompanied the soldiers began to also raise these new birds.

By the end of the 16th century, the turkey was well installed in large European households. A German cookbook of the period included 20 different ways to cook turkey.

In the 18th century, France was swept by a wave of turkey mania, which was intensified by the American Revolution. A favorite stuffing of the roasted bird was truffles. Many food experts wrote that turkey should be eaten young to be tender (six to eight months old).

The Pilgrims had no hesitation about eating turkey, as they had about many strange foods of the New World. They were acquainted with turkeys since they had reached Europe a century earlier and turkeys were eaten commonly there.

In the New World, turkeys were plentiful and easy to take. As early as 1672, only half a century after the Pilgrims’ arrival, there were complaints that the English and the Indians had destroyed the turkeys. They were getting harder and harder to find in the wild.

In the South, the story was the same. The first arrivals found the land teeming with turkeys. Capt. John Smith told of the Indians bringing him turkeys when he first arrived at Jamestown.

For a considerable length of time after the colonists arrived in the East, all the turkeys were wild. The Indians had never bothered to domesticate a bird that was always available. In the Southwest, turkeys were already domesticated and could easily be harvested with a bow and arrow.

Strangely, the American turkey industry started less for the production of meat, but rather for the production feathers. Some Indian tribes raised turkeys primarily for their plumes, which they valued for ornamental reasons.

The turkey, as a feather producer, founded the chief industry of Monticello, Iowa. It was there that William Hoag invented the feather duster in 1872. “As long as there is dust, there is a demand for the feather duster” was the slogan of the Hoag family business. At one time, the town of Monticello provided half the world’s feather dusters; the dark bronze feathers were in the greatest demand.

However, in the 1970s, turkey feathers, once 15 cents a pound, reached a price of $3 a pound. This made the feather duster no longer competitive. In 1974, Shirley Eden, a great-granddaughter of the founder, closed the factory and, according to press reports, went home, had her two bourbons and cried for hours. The factory was converted to make computer circuit boards.

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