News / USA

US Thanksgiving Turkey Hails from Mexico

The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)
The Thanksgiving turkey has made a circular journey, from its origins in Mexico to Europe and back to North America. (Alison Klein/VOA)

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday and roast turkey is the definitive centerpiece of the holiday feast.

But the domesticated turkey is not an American invention.

It's Mexican.

The bird was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, what is now Mexico, at around 800 B.C., says Julie Long, a turkey researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"The Mesoamericans had turkey meat all the time," she says.

Enter the Spanish

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, "They discovered these domesticated turkeys, which were a lot better than the birds they were eating in Europe," Long says.

The Spanish were used to eating birds like peacocks, pretty to look at, but not much meat on them.

US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigrant
US Thanksgiving Turkey Is Mexican Immigranti
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X


"Those are just sort of scrawny little birds," she says. "And, of course, chickens at that time were scrawny little birds."

Compared to a nice, meaty turkey, it was no contest.

Turkey conquers Europe

Along with corn, peppers and tomatoes, the Spanish took turkeys back to Europe with them.

Over the next 100 years, turkeys spread from Spain to Holland and all the way up to England, where goose was the traditional English Christmas feast until turkey came to town.

"To the English at the time, they thought they tasted better than a goose," Long says. "So at Christmas you would actually be doing very well if you got a turkey as opposed to a goose."

Back to the Americas

From 17th-century England, turkeys made their way back to the Americas. English settlers brought the birds and other livestock with them to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

A decade or so earlier, when the Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth, they found the woods were already full of wild turkeys, distant cousins of the birds domesticated in Mesoamerica.

Pilgrim writings "refer to turkeys as being ‘fat and sweet,’" says Kathleen Wall, a colonial food expert at the Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. She says the birds also made for easy hunting.

"You can go out at twilight and the turkeys roost in trees and you can shoot them off their roost. They sit still while you shoot at them," Wall says.

Wild turkeys decline

Fat, sweet and easy to shoot, it didn't take long before colonists like Gov. William Bradford started writing about the wild turkey's decline.

"One of the things he mentions in the 1640s is how things that were so abundant in 1620 and in 1630 are suddenly disappearing," Wall says.

By the late 1640s, it was a good idea to raise domesticated turkeys because the wild birds were getting harder to find.

Their populations continued to decline as America moved west, hitting a low point in the 1930s.

Recovery

Conservation efforts in the late 20th century started bringing the wild turkey back. Wall says there are enough of them today that occasional attacks on suburbanites are reported.

One turkey that repeatedly attacked a Massachusetts postman had to be forcibly relocated.

As for the original Mexican wild turkey - the great-great grandfather of today's Thanksgiving bird - the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Long says it's probably extinct.

"There are some turkeys that are down there that exist on preserves," she says. "But nobody knows for sure whether those are the original wild birds."

But its descendents live on at the heart of the American Thanksgiving celebration.

 

 

 

You May Like

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. More

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

Dropout rate at an all-time high in South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during 3-year civil war More

Tennessee Songbirds Fly Coop Long Before Tornadoes Arrive

Researchers say birds apparently alerted to danger by sounds at frequencies below range of human hearing More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jay Brodell from: Cota Rica
November 21, 2012 8:40 PM
Well before the Spanish arrival the turkey was domesticated and provided food for the natives of the Southwest U.S. So maybe they came from Mexico into what is now the U.,S. or maybe they traveled south.

They are plenty of turkey bones at Mesa Verde in the Four Corner region.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportionali
X
Aru Pande
December 19, 2014 1:45 AM
The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportional

The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid