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Our Turkish-American Thanksgiving Bird

Just a year ago—on the occasion of our last great American Turkey Day—I sent forth a brief essay arguing that we call our Thanksgiving bird a turkey precisely because it came from Turkey.  That big-breasted creature we all ponder and pray over every November is not a descendant of wild turkeys encountered by the first English settlers in North America.  It is rather the well-fed and intentionally bosomed up offspring of familiar birds imported by pilgrims and cavaliers from the British Isles.  Our early English brethren could not abide the naughty behavior of wild American turkeys, preferring the domesticated and almost civil demeanor of the meatier, but less tasty gobblers that they knew back home. 

            Never mind that those bigger, tamer birds had actually derived also—but a century earlier—from another part of America.  Mexico to be precise, where they had been domesticated by Aztec husbanders somewhere in the ancient recesses of time.  The Aztecs had named these too-fat-for-flight birds huexoloti (Meleagris gallopavo).  But that complicated moniker was  virtually left behind on Central American terrains when some of these permanently grounded birds were transported to Spain and Portugal and beyond.  As they came from what was thought to be the Indies somewhere near what became India, their initial names in Europe contained some form of the term “indi.”  Even when they were quickly taken across the trade routes of the Mediterranean and pathways connecting the population centers of the Middle East, they retained a name that connected them to islands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  It was only when some of their fattened offspring were transported from Islamic farms at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to England that they acquired an entirely new name that connected them with the Middle East and not with America. Bearing in England the name “turkey,” they were transshipped to pilgrim settlers in North America where they displaced their wild cousins and eventually became the favored Thanksgiving bird for virtually all Americans. 

            I shared my story of the forcefully migrated huexoloti with a variety of historians and friends through several electronic outlets including the History News Network (HNN) and the historians discussion page H-SHEAR .  My goals were both to entertain and to educate colleagues and friends about this early and unusual link between ancient America, the colonial powers, Islamic lands around the Mediterranean and what became the United States.  Based on the small avalanche of responses I got, I would say that I succeeded.  Not only that.  In the process I got a new, fuller, and even more surprising education on the odd career of our revered Thanksgiving bird.

            By the time the dust settled I had gotten responses to my essay from more than twenty locations around the United States and much of the world.    The first response, oddly, came from Beijing, China.  But there quickly followed other responses from Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City, Stockholm, Taipei, and Tokyo.  I also heard, of course, from Cambridge, Oxford, and London in the UK.  In the US I got comments from Boston, Houston, Norfolk, Raleigh, Greenville (NC) and somewhere in Florida.  Three further responses came from California alone:  Berkeley, San Marino, and San Francisco.  All of these were very interesting.  But probably the most enlightening responses came Turkey itself.

            From the point of view of a historian who was putting forth a novel thesis that overturns virtually all of our conventional wisdom about the Thanksgiving bird of the United States, I am happy to say that, amazingly, all of the responses substantiated and further reinforced my argument.   While I was expecting to end up with a few splinters in my behind, the thesis seems to hold water quite well. 

            One of my most informed correspondents helped reinforce the Aztec and Central American origins of the turkey we kill at Thanksgiving (the huexoloti).  This individual—a molecular biology lab operator in California—led me to one of the most phenomenal researchers I have ever encountered—the University of Cambridge anthropologist R.A. Donkin.  Donkin spent a long and productive career charting the transportation and distribution of trade goods, plants, animals, and birds during the era of European exploration and expansion around the world.  Spices, pearls, camphor, manna, and pigs were some of the topics examined by Donkin and all his studies ended up in some quite rare publications.  I became so immersed in reading the ten books he produced, I decided that when I went to Cambridge earlier this year, I would pay the great scholar a visit.  He had, I am sorry to say, recently expired.

Although Donkin never did a formal study of the turkey, he did publish studies of Guinea fowl and Muscovy ducks—both of which had some career similarities to the huexoloti.  And he frequently mentions the huexoloti comparatively in these other works.  All three of these creatures are birds.  All three are domesticated birds.  And, most interestingly, all three of these two legged animals picked up geographic names during their long and migratory careers.  The Guinea fowl got its name because these birds arrived in foreign lands from West Africa.  The Muscovy duck, however, derived like the huexoloti from America, not from Moscow.  But they were transported to the world by the British company known as the Muscovy Trading Company.  In this case, the bearer provided the name.  Both of these data are useful and telling for the history of the huexoloti.

Another correspondent provided some additional insights into the geographic muddle relating to the naming our Thanksgiving bird.   In those lands where Portuguese is the lingua Franca, the huexoloti is known as “Peru,” which turns out to be a shortened form of  “gallinho do Peru” (Peruvian chicken).  I.e., the huexoloti arrived in Brazil by way of Peru and was from there transported to Portugal.  The same kind of immediate and proximal geographic label seems to have confused Linnaeus when he came to giving a scientific name to the Muscovy duck in 1758—cairina moschata.  Although the bird, like the huexoloti, derived from Mexico, Linnaeus associated it with northern Africa and thus evidently Cairo, Egypt, as its proximal source.

Another correspondent compiled the linguistic names by which the huexoloti is knownin various regions of the world.  And here is even more evidence that geographic proximal names are crucial in the naming of creatures from other worlds.  In most languages surrounding the Mediterranean, the name given to the huexoloti contains the connected letters “indi” suggesting (without further knowledge) that the creature is a bird from India.  Thus in French the word is dinde or d’inde (from India).  In Catalan the term is gall dindi.  In Basque the name is indioilar or indioilo.  In Arabic the bird is called diiq hindi.  Among Greeks the term is indianos or simply dianos.  The same form even applies when one comes to Turkey where the huexoloti is faithfully known from whence it originally derived—hindi.

Even a little further afield the indi distinction continued to persist.  In Russia the bird is known as indjuk (male) or indjushka (female).  In Poland the term applied is indyk or indyczka.  The same form is retained in Yiddish—indik.  Even in Azari—spoken widely in Iran—the indi form is retained in the word hindishga.  In fact, the only proximal Mediterranean land where the tell-tale indi form does not appear is in Spain itself where authentic American terms are used for our bird:  pavo (a shortened form of the Mexican term gallopavo) and guajolote—precisely the Hispanicized version of the original Aztec name—huexoloti. 

All of this would seem to be something like a word game—except for the fact that everybody applied to the huexoloti a name that expressed what they thought was the geographic origin of the bird.  While later word-birds who knew nothing about history would guess incorrectly that the people who used these words thought the huexoloti came from India, this was not the case at all.  The Spanish knew that the birds came from the place that had been mistakenly identified by Columbus as the Indies.  They even knew what the Aztecs called the bird—the guajolote.  And all those who took the bird across the Mediterranean from Spanish ports knew that this strange creature came from where Columbus thought he had been—the Indies.  You know, over there next to India!

It was those peoples who did not get the bird from Spanish ports who confused the issue for all of us in America.  Virtually all of the folk around northern Europe who got their huexoloti directly from Turkish merchants totally confused what our bird should be called.  You would think that the world venturing Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, and Swedes would get it right.  Maybe not the Finns who did not get so much abroad.  But all of these proud seafaring peoples—who got their huexoloti from Turkish traders bought the idea that the indi quagmire of names for the Mexican bird meant that it did indeed come from India. 

The Dutch may have been the original culprits.  Their word for the huexoloti is kalkoen which is a shortened version of the original Dutch term for the bird or kalkoense haan.  Both of these terms imply the geographic origin of the huexoloti as “Calicut” or the coast of India.   The normally geographically precise Dutch thus got the wrong Indies when they heard the Turks say hindi and the French say dindi and they embellished the origins with a cutesy term filled with consonants.  This Dutch application spread like a rash to their neighbors as the Danes called the bird a kalkun; the Finns embraced kalkkuna; the Swedes kalkon; and the Norwegians followed in the same pattern as their Baltic neighbors.

In the end, it seems that only the English dispensed completely with both the American and the Indian origins of the huexoloti.  English importers dealt with the same Turkish merchants who exported the huexoloti to Russia, to Iran, to Poland, to The Netherlands, to Sweden, and even to India.  But the English, being English, did not need all of the pedigree words that came along with the bird.  They could not be bothered with all of that linguistic falderal.   The birds came from Turkish merchants—“135 of the creatures bought at 4 shillings a piece” in 1555—and, to describe what they were in his ledger, the English importer created a new English word—“Turkies” (OED)And, once again, the elastic vacuum cleaner that is the English language got a new word and the huexoloti got a new and permanent name—at least for the English speaking world.

My correspondents gave me a lot more than lessons in words.  They also taught me something about where and when the huexoloti is cooked and eaten.  Everyone seems to agree that of the two American birds that are now known as turkey (the domesticated huexoloti which we eat at Thanksgiving and the wild cousin known as silvestris), it is the wild turkey that has all of the great flavors.  Everyone knows that the huexoloti is one of the blandest and most tasteless chunks of food that ever appeared on God’s earth.   It takes thousands of cooks and millions of wife’s tales every Thanksgiving to conjure up a set of recipes to make the fat bird edible.  One of my correspondents from Florida—a hunter—wrote that the wild turkey has been re-established in all of the forty-eight contiguous American states and even in Hawaii.  Not only is the wild version a challenge to hunt, he wrote, it also makes a very juicy and enjoyable meal.

Evidently only in the United States is the big-breasted huexoloti lifted to the status of having a national holiday surrounding it.  A Swedish correspondent said that the bird is not associated with any holiday there.  The goose is cooked on St. Martin’s Eve.  But our huexoloti has no special time of year to be eaten.

If you are thus an American living abroad when the last Thursday comes around in November, it is not likely that you are going to be able to get a huexoloti so that you can pretend you are back home in the U. S.  One of my other correspondents—a Turkish-American—tried vainly to find a turkey in Turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving.  But everywhere he went in Istanbul looking for a bird, he got blank stares that he could be so stupid as not to know that hindi do not appear in Turkish markets until after December 15.  As he was told, any good Turk knows that the hindi is only cooked up as a whole bird to be eaten on New Year’s Eve.  In Turkey, therefore, our Thanksgiving bird is used not to say grace over a good year past, but rather to inaugurate the beginning of a new and hopeful year.

In America, of course, the word turkey has a variety of connotations and meanings that extend beyond a name for two types of American birds.  The term can be used to describe a failure.  It can also be used to ostracize a person.  A few of my correspondents also made reference to these uses of the English word created originally to name a huexoloti.  My Swedish correspondent indicated that kalkon appeared in the term kalkonfilm—a phrase used to describe a particularly bad movie—a “turkey movie.”

A young Turkish reader recalled quite sadly his experiences as a sixth grader when his family had lived for a time in the United States.  “The kids used to call me turkey turkey gobble gobble,” he wrote.  “It wasn’t the least funny.”   


Alas at the many quirks and foibles of the English language; of our American habits, customs, and practices; and of our continuing need at the great day we call Thanksgiving to pause and look at ourselves.  To expand our knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.  And to practice better the great protestations of compassion, love, and gratefulness we almost instinctively feel when we sit down and look at that great bird that is resting in front of us.  Instead of looking at the feasting creature awaiting us as a symbol of some arcane patriotic spirit that we should somehow recapture, we should view our Thanksgiving bird as a very real symbol of all the things that make us up as a people.  That bird is only ours because Aztec husbandmen got it domesticated; Spaniards rustled it off to Europe; Islamic traders took it to Turkey; Turkish farmers fattened it up and exported it to all of the known world; Turkish traders sold it to whoever would buy it; English subjects made it the bird of choice for a steady and healthy diet; English settlers in America demanded to have these domesticated birds rather than their wild cousins in America; and Americans made this bird—the meandering huexoloti—the symbol and centerpiece for the most cherished of all the American holidays. 

We have a lot to live up to if we can just make ourselves meat the lofty measure of all the symbols contained in that fattened bird on this and every Thanksgiving Day.