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More than twelve thousand species of birds are dispersed throughout the world, and virtually all of them are edible. Fowl were an important part of early human diets. Their eggs were easily gathered, but the fowl themselves were more difficult to procure. Because it is not easy to hit birds on the wing, hunters devised methods of capturing them with traps, nets, and snares. Land or gallinaceous birds-heavy-bodied fowl that roost and largely feed on the ground-were easier to catch, especially when humans joined in group efforts. Some flushed birds from thickets while others clubbed, hit, or netted them. Once acquired, the flesh was prepared in many ways-from raw and roasted to boiled, baked, fried, and braised when these cooking techniques developed.
In addition to eating their flesh and eggs, humankind has used birds in many practical, artistic, social, and symbolic ways. Chickens, doves, ducks, geese, and storks, for instance, have all borne religious symbolism. Chicken entrails have been used for divination and magic. Many cultures and religious groups have imbued eggs with special significance, such as fertility, and some vestiges of these ancient traditions have survived in modern Easter and Passover celebrations. Roosters or cocks have been set against one another in cockfights, providing an opportunity for gambling and a source of entertainment for millennia. Cockscombs have been used for medical purposes, and feathers have been fitted on arrows, sewn into blankets, and woven into clothing, while birds' bones have been fashioned into tools, buttons, and ornaments. In all, humankind has greatly benefitted from birds.
The Americas were particularly well endowed with edible wildfowl. At the top of the list were migratory ducks, geese, partridges, pheasants, and carrier pigeons, which were numberless according to many early European observers. Nonmigrating land birds such as ruffed grouse and turkeys were also plentiful in parts of North America and especially important from a culinary standpoint after migratory birds departed during the winter and other game and edible plants were scarce.
Only two fowl were domesticated in the New World in pre-Columbian times. One was the Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), which originated in tropical South America. Precisely when, where, and how it was domesticated is unknown. By the time Europeans arrived it was an important part of the diets of people inhabiting the tropical regions of Central and South America. During the sixteenth century Europeans widely disseminated the Muscovy duck, but it never became an important food source anywhere. Today, its culinary contribution is insignificant except to subsistence farmers in tropical areas of the world.
The other fowl domesticated in the Americas was the turkey-a large, nonmigratory land bird. Turkeylike birds have inhabited North America for several million years, but the earliest archaeological evidence for the modern turkey dates back only about fifty thousand years. The turkey's closest living relatives are the Asian pheasant and the African guinea fowl. The American turkey and the Asian pheasant are close enough genetically so that they can be mated through artificial insemination and produce offspring. Researchers have proposed that these two species evolved from a common ancestor, but if so, no intermediate fossils have been found in Asia or North America.
Fossils of various turkey species have been unearthed, but only two survived into historical times. The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata, formerly Agriocharis ocellata) and the common turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). The ocellated turkey is found today in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala. It is slightly smaller and has shorter legs than the common turkey. The male ocellated turkey has no beard-coarse, long, black hairs that protrude from the upper part of the breast-but it does have large spurs-strong, sharp, and pointed appendages that protrude from the back of legs. Its head feathers are blue or white, and it has wattles, the pouchlike appendages that descend from the neck. Its body plumage is copper or bronze-green, and its tail feathers have a purple cast with blue-green eyespots. Its snood-the floppy growth on the front of the head that flops over the beak-has a roundish protuberance tipped with yellow.
Stylized figures of ocellated turkeys have been found in Mayan manuscripts and codices, which suggests that ocellated turkeys were consumed by Mayan priests and aristocracy. Although easily tamed, the ocellated turkey does not reproduce in captivity. Today, they are frequently found around rural homesteads and tourist areas.
The Wild Turkey
Historically, the ocellated turkey was not found in areas inhabited by the wild turkey, which ranged throughout much of North America from the Canadian province of Ontario to the area around Veracruz, Mexico, and extended from the Atlantic coast to the American Southwest. By the time Europeans arrived in what is today the United States, wild turkeys inhabited the territories of thirty-nine states. A closely related species, the Meleagris californica, survived on the West Coast until about ten thousand years ago, when it disappeared from the fossil record. Its extinction was perhaps the result of early hunters, diseases, or climatic changes at the end of the last ice age.
Wild turkeys are natural foragers and eat almost anything, but they prefer mast (acorns, chestnuts, nuts, and seeds), plant tops, grapes, rose haws, and berries. As they are omnivores, they also eat spiders, tadpoles, snails, slugs, worms, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, caterpillars, and ants as well as small snakes and lizards. When food is scarce during winter, wild turkeys eat wild rye, Kentucky bluegrass, and almost anything else they can find.
By any standard a wild turkey is an impressive bird of unusual appearance. The adult ranges in size from ten to almost forty pounds and stands three to four feet tall; its wingspan can reach almost six feet. Their wings may seem long, but they are comparatively short for the bird's weight. Wild turkeys can fly but are neither aerodynamic nor graceful when they do. The shape of their wings and their powerful wing muscles permit rapid acceleration, and they have been clocked at speeds of fifty-five miles per hour. They can fly distances of up to a mile, but they mainly use flight to escape predators. Wild turkeys also use their wings to leap into trees, where they prefer to roost at night. For normal locomotion, they prefer to use their powerful legs. With a long, straddling gait, they can trot at twelve miles per hour; when frightened, they can accelerate to twenty-five miles per hour. Wild turkeys can also float on water and swim, which makes it possible for them to traverse wide rivers and large bodies of water.
Wild turkeys have excellent hearing and eyesight. Without moving their heads, they can see 320 degrees. They make many sounds and have a relatively complex set of speech patterns, the word for one of which, "gobble," has entered the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has been used since 1680 to describe the sound male turkeys make during mating season. Male turkeys are called gobblers as well as cocks or toms, whereas females are usually called hens.
Wild turkeys have distinctive physical features. Their wrinkled heads and necks are without feathers. They have caruncles-a reddish, pliable growth on the head and upper neck, snoods-which are more pronounced in the males, and wattles, which are attached below the beak and down the throat. Male turkeys (and some hens) have a beard-a long, hairlike appendage hanging from their chests. In addition to its unusual appearance, a wild turkey's habits and behavior are also remarkable, particularly during the mating season in March and April when cocks strut about, call to hens, and display their tail feathers. During this time a male's head, neck, snood, and wattle turn bright red. When a hen signals readiness by separating herself from other hens, she may engage in a dance of her own before she invites the cock to mount her from behind.
Along with some lizards, snakes, and a few other animals, the turkey's most unusual aspect is that the hen has the ability to reproduce by parthenogenesis. Without having mated, hens can produce fertilized eggs under certain conditions. All chicks produced from these eggs are male, and about 20 percent of them will be able to reproduce as adults. Although parthenogenesis has only been documented in domesticated turkeys, it is thought that wild turkeys have this ability as well.
Wild turkey hens lay between eight and twenty eggs, colored white to a cream with brown speckles, in a single clutch. The hen carefully conceals them on the ground. Should something happen to the eggs, hens can lay an additional clutch or two. The hen incubates and turns the eggs for twenty-eight days. Hatching takes place over a twenty-four-hour period, and the hen remains in the nest during that time. For the first four or five weeks, chicks roost on the ground, protected by the mother's wings. Poults learn to leap into low-hanging tree branches, again spending the night under their mother's wings in the tree. Poults stay with their mothers until they are about nine months old, when they are considered adults. They are highly adaptable, preferring thick woods, brushland, and swampy lowlands, but have difficulty with deep snow. Their natural life span is from ten to fifteen years.
Geographic isolation has fostered six major subspecies of wild turkeys, which differ as to plumage coloration and range: the Mexican turkey (M. g. gallopavo) is found mainly in southern Mexico from Puerta Villarta and Acapulco on the Pacific Coast to Veracruz and Tuxpan on the Gulf of Mexico, and is quite rare; the eastern wild turkey (M. g. silvestris), the most numerous subspecies, ranges widely from the eastern coast of North America to the Mississippi River; the Florida turkey (M. g. osceola) is found in the southern half of Florida; Merriam's turkey (M. g. merriami) is native to the mountain regions of the west from Colorado to Mexico; the Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia) inhabits the south central Plains states from South Dakota to Texas and northeastern Mexico; and, finally, Gould's turkey (M. g. mexicana, which also now incorporates M. g. onusta) is found in northwestern Mexico and parts of Arizona and New Mexico.
The Domesticated Turkey Of Mexico
The concept of "domestication" of animals is subject to extensive academic debate. Some scholars define domestication as any change in animal behavior caused by human interaction. For others, domestication means the point at which animals discontinue behaviors that harm humans and begin to breed easily in captivity. New World-domesticated quadrupeds include the American dog, which may have accompanied early hunters from Asia and was occasionally consumed; the New World camelids-the alpaca and the llama-which were rarely eaten in pre-Columbian times; and the guinea pig, which was an important food animal in parts of South America. Of these, none made any significant global culinary contribution. The American dog was replaced by the Old World dog that arrived with Europeans. Camelids emerged from South America mainly as zoo or circus animals. The guinea pig serves mainly as a pet or subject in medical experiments and remains a food source only in limited areas of South America today.
The wild turkey is a very inquisitive animal and readily congregates with humans. As one observer has noted, it was "aggressively begging to be domesticated." Relatively little is known about how or where the turkey was first domesticated. Part of the problem in determining its point of domestication is that wild turkey bones do not differ greatly from those of domesticated turkeys. Without corroborative evidence it is difficult to determine if turkey bones unearthed in archaeological sites are from domesticated or wild birds. There are plenty of signs of domestication, however, at sites of human habitation: the presence of turkey egg shells, which suggests that chicks were born in captivity; turkey pens, which suggests intentional caging; and the remains of turkeys of different ages, which suggests they were indeed being raised at that location. Feathers are also helpful indicators. White tips can result from a diet strong in corn, which lacks lysine. Because corn does not grow in the wild and can only be grown with human help, turkey feathers with white tips are another indicator of domestication.
Richard MacNeish, a Canadian archaeologist who worked extensively in Mexico, is credited with finding the oldest evidence of the domesticated turkey at sites in the Tehuacán Valley. These remains date to 200 B.C.E.-700 C.E. Domesticated turkey bones, dating to about 700 C.E., have also been unearthed at a Guatemalan archaeological site far beyond the pre-Columbian range of the wild turkey. That is not likely to have been the point of domestication, but it does point to early trade in domesticated turkeys in Central America. Aldo Leopold, who studied wild turkeys in Mexico during the 1940s, speculated that domestication had occurred north of the Rio Blasas Valley, but that was based on reports of sightings of wild turkeys in the twentieth century and a few historical documents. Others have surmised that the turkey was domesticated in Michoacán, but no convincing evidence has been offered to support that (or any other) view.
When the turkey was domesticated is also mysterious. Pre-Columbian domesticated turkeys were much smaller than wild turkeys, which suggests a relatively short period of domestication because size reduction is observed in many animals early in the process of domestication. Also, when Europeans arrived in the Americas, domesticated turkeys were found in a relatively small geographic area in Central America. Because other domesticated foods such as maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and Muscovy ducks were widely disseminated in pre-Columbian times, the turkey's limited range suggests that it had not been long domesticated before the arrival of Europeans. The exact date of domestication in Mexico is unknown, but it likely occurred during the past 2,500 years.
What is clear is that the Aztecs did not domesticate the turkey, as many writers, incorrectly, have reported. The Aztecs are thought to have been closely related nomadic groups who lived in northern Mexico before migrating into the Valley of Mexico around 1200 C.E. The Aztecs arrived in Mexico's central valley well after others domesticated the turkey. Because the Aztecs were familiar with the wild turkeys that inhabited northern Mexico, they readily adopted domesticated turkeys when they settled down. When Europeans arrived in 1519, both domesticated and wild turkeys played an important role in the cuisine of indigenous people of Mexico. At that time, the Aztec empire was at its zenith, and Europeans naturally associated turkeys with Aztecs.
Eating turkey in Pre-Columbian Mexico
Because the Aztecs did not develop a system of writing, all we know of the pre-Columbian turkey is what can be surmised from a limited number of archaeological artifacts and the reports that Europeans wrote after the Conquest in 1519. By all surviving accounts, turkeys were extensively raised in ancient Mexico. The Aztec word for a male turkey, huexoloti, survives in modern Mexico as guajolote. Much of what we know today about the Aztec consumption of turkeys comes from Bernardino de Sahagún, author of the Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain). Sahagún was a Franciscan priest who went to Mexico in 1529 and for the next forty-eight years recorded information on what Aztecs said about their pre-Columbian customs, politics, and daily life. He had much to say about the turkey, which "leads the meats; it is the master. It is tasty, fat, savory." Specifically, the hen "is tasty, healthful, fat, full of fat, fleshy, fleshy-breasted, heavy-fleshed."
The Aztecs cooked turkey in many ways-roasting it over a fire as well and incorporating it into soups and stews. Sahagún describes one layered dish that merchants made and sold in markets. At the bottom was dog meat, followed by turkey meat covered by a sauce. The Aztecs also made a turkey stew, totol-molli, that is similar to today's mole de guajolote.
Excerpted from The Turkey by ANDREW F. SMITH Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Recipes xi
Part 1 The History Of The Turkey 1
1 The Prehistoric Turkey; or, How the Turkey Conquered North America 3
2 The Globe-trotting Turkey, or, How the Turkey Conquered Europe 14
3 The English Turkey; or, How the Turkey Cooked the Christmas Goose 26
4 The Call of the Wild Turkey; or, How the Wild Turkey Came to a Fowl Ending 39
5 The Well-dressed Turkey; or, How the Turkey Trotted onto America's Table 54
6 Hale's Turkey Tale; or, The Invention of Turkey Day 67
7 The Well-bred Turkey; or, How the Turkey Lost Its Flavor 83
8 The Industrialized Turkey; or, How the Turkey Became a Profit Center 93
9 The Social Turkey; or, How the Turkey Became a Cultural Icon 110
10 The American Turkey; or, How the Turkey Came Home to Roost 130
Part 2 Historical Recipes 137
Selected Bibliography and Resources 205