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The Thanksgiving turkey: an unusual history

By | November 19, 2012 | News (2)

The turkey had been tamed by members of the Aztec culture who relied on it as a food source; its name coming from the Middle East country of Turkey.
Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune

While family and friends gather around their dinner tables decorated with dishes of food and a bronzed turkey, the meaning behind the American holiday has plenty of history.

Families throughout the nation celebrate the festive holiday with a special meal and a large turkey. It’s a picture most have become accustomed to – but what is the meaning behind the popular holiday? Where did the idea of centering our Thanksgiving meal on the turkey come from?

Brad Jones, an associate history professor at Fresno State, said the story behind the turkey is an interesting one.

In America, we have made the holiday one that only we celebrate, like the Fourth of July. But really the turkey we associate with Thanksgiving has a history behind it taking us back to the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean and landed in the Americas.

Jones teaches a colonial American history course and has given students a reading assignment by Larry E. Tise, a historian from East Carolina University, titled ‘Why Is Our Thanksgiving Bird Called a Turkey?’ published in 2008.

It may come as a surprise to some that the highlight of our all-American Thanksgiving meal actually has its origins from the Aztecs. The plump bird we eat on the fourth Thursday of November has lost its Aztec name of huexoloti, according to Tise.

But the question still remains – where does the given name of turkey come from? Simply, it comes from the Middle East country of Turkey.

The huexoloti had long been tamed by Aztecs as an important food source, noted Tise in his essay. The bird was taken as a market good back to Spain.

The market traders took the bird into what was then the most powerful empire, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). In Turkey, the bird was bred to become fuller and plump.

In an excerpt from Tise’s essay he says, “When corn, tobacco, and, of course, our huexoloti arrived in the heart of the thriving and vibrant Ottoman Empire – seated in what we now know as Turkey— they came into the hands of probably the most advanced farmers and husbandmen in the world.

“Making use of sophisticated growing and seeding techniques, savvy Turkish farmers within a few short years had produced a surplus quantities of corn and tobacco – enough to export to other parts of the world. And with smart breeding and feeding practices they also grew vast flocks of big-breasted huexoloti.”

The turkey then made its way into Eastern Europe and England in the 1540s, said Tise, and finally settled in Jamestown in 1614.

“I think it’s pretty cool to think that this particular bird has made its way around the western world and that it was reintroduced to the Americas 200 years after it left,” Jones said.

The story of how we got to eat the bird during Thanksgiving is a reflection of how we are part of a much larger society, Jones said, and many times we forget that.

“Even back in the 17th century, 18th century, people living in North America were still— even at that time— part of a global society and were influenced by other cultures other ethnic groups,” added Jones

“I think we should appreciate that, particularly on Thanksgiving,” Jones said. “It’s such a quintessentially American holiday. We don’t think that Muslim Turkish traders appear on our dinner table.”

Freshman nursing student Lizbeth Solis said she doesn’t have any special traditions during Thanksgiving, aside from her family gathering and enjoying their meals.

But Solis questioned why the this day is celebrated, after reading a book for her Africana Studies class titled, “The Lies my Teacher Told Me,” by James W. Loewen, after learning the true relations between natives and pilgrims.

Solis mentioned that for this Thanksgiving, she would educate her family on the holiday from what she has learned in school.

Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving was actually proclaimed a national holiday during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln as a day to give thanks as a response to the end of the Civil War and a day to give thanks to the sacrifices made during the war.

There was a meeting between the natives and early colonists in the 1620s or 1630s Jones said but it was not what some know as a “mythical Thanksgiving of breaking of bread, sort of two cultures coming together.”

In reality the dinner that took place was a diplomatic meeting.

“The early New England colonists were attempting to establish an alliance with a particular native tribe in the region because they wanted to go to war with another native tribe. This was not sort of a peaceful deal,” Jones said.

The meaning behind of our nation’s day of giving thanks has several stories – from the elementary history lessons of a peaceful feast between natives and settlers, to gathering with family to enjoy one another, to forming lines at midnight to snag the best shopping deals of the year— and of course the factual events that occurred.

But one thing that has identified our country is the union of diverse cultures. The big bird that sits in the oven for hours to be consumed by Americans is a reflection of who we are.

Tise summed up his essay by stating: “We have been a part of a shared planet for a very long time.”

Jones agreed by saying, “I think everyone is fascinated by the idea that this singular bird represents such a vast history and multiple cultures and that we are tied to the rest of the world in many ways and have been for many years.”

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One Response to The Thanksgiving turkey: an unusual history

  1. William S. says:

    Reflecting on a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter two years after the eagle was adopted by Congress as the symbol of America, he wrote of the ‘bad moral Character’ of the eagle who would rather steal fish than hunt, placing full faith in the turkey;

    “I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

    And I’m thankful is views weren’t shared by the majority during his day. Can you imagine a turkey on the Great Seal and a stuffed bald eagle on your Thanksgiving plate? Neither can I.

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