Monday, December 12, 2011

Holidays and the Domesticated Turkey

Have you ever wondered why we eat turkeys on holidays?  Who started the tradition? Why would we even domesticate turkeys? This is the history of the domesticated turkey.

The modern domesticated turkey is descendant from one of the six subspecies of wild turkey that came from southern Mexico. The earliest archeological signs of domestication, such as the construction of pens and large quantities of eggshells, have appeared on Mayan sites that date back to 100 BC. By 300 AD, the Aztecs and pueblo societies of the America southwest were domesticating turkeys as well, using their meat and eggs for protein and their feathers for decorative purposes. In fact, the Aztecs even associated the turkey with their God Tezcatlipoca because of his humorous behavior.

The first turkeys were imported to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The English navigator William Strickland is credited for introducing the first turkey to England around the same time. Strickland even included a turkey on his family coat of arms. However, the turkey still remained a luxury food until the late 19th century.

In early America, wild turkeys were abundant and thus easy to catch for a feast. When the English began to domesticate this poultry species, they quickly realized that the animal had no other use then meat production. Other animals such as chickens or cattle were raised for a dual purpose. Americans followed the growing British tradition of eating turkey for holiday meals.  However, while the British have always associated turkey with Christmas dinner, Americans have grown accustomed to eating it for Thanksgiving as well.

By the 1940s, intensive farming production techniques had improved, which allowed turkey to be more affordable. In addition, refrigeration technologies allowed turkeys to be frozen and shipped long distances.

The Broad-Breasted White turkey is the most common commercial breed due to its size and amount of meat. The Broad-Breasted Bronze is second compared to the White. There are also many heritage breeds, which are raised to retain historic characteristics and natural behavior of wild turkeys. Although they have been praised as having a richer taste than commercial turkeys, the meat from heritage turkeys is very expensive due to their slow growth and low population. However, the recent movement towards eating natural and organic food has increased the interest in raising them domestically.

Whether you are enjoying a Broad-Breasted White, a Broad-Breasted Bronze, or a heritage breed, your holiday in America will be complete with a turkey. 

Guest post written by Lori Hutchison. Lori is an Art History Professor and owns the Masters in History Schools website at

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