Thursday, November 22, 2012


What could be the reason for calling the turkey (short for turkey-cock) by its given name and presenting "as a recognizable bird in all its birdness" at the holiday table?

AgriCulture blogger Mark Scherzer, a co-owner of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY, has some thoughts about this. In the most recent post on Rural Intelligence's AgriCulture blog, he writes: 

Starting from the descriptive terms we use, we try to mask the source of most of the meats we eat. We do not eat “cow” or “calf.”  Instead we dine on “beef” or “veal.” Nor do we eat “pigs.” It is “pork” that arrives on our tables. “Sheep”?  Never tasted them, it’s “mutton” instead.  Where mammals are concerned, our language suggests that we are eating something other than the actual animal when we fork into a serving of meat.

. . . 

Why such a ready acceptance of the turkey presented intact on the Thanksgiving table? One factor may certainly be the ritual nature of this harvest celebration meal, which dates back even beyond the American colonial period to sixteenth century Europe. The very nature of a ritual is that it is something repeated as it always has been. Our traditional presentation of the turkey may be, in part, a historical survival from a time when reminding us of the animal source of our food was considered highly desirable and in good taste. 

. . . 

In a famous letter to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the choice of the bald eagle as a national symbol, complaining that eagles were lazy and cowardly, and subject to being chased away by birds as small as sparrows. They scavenge as much as capture their own prey. He noted that the images of eagles depicted on coins looked a lot like turkeys, and opined that the turkey would have been a better choice as our symbol because it was also native to America but far braver than the eagle. The turkey, he noted, would even attack a British grenadier.

To the turkey’s quality of courage I would add a good natured inquisitiveness as well as a wily sort of intelligence. And then, perhaps the most American of all characteristics, the sort of open friendliness we have long valued as a society. 

Post-post tidbits: from the OED.

Etymology:  < Turkey n.1 + cock n.1 In the 16th cent. synonymous with Guinea-cock orGuinea-fowl, an African bird known to the ancients (the μελεαγρίς of Aristotle,meleagris of Varro and Pliny), the American bird being at first identified with or treated as a species of this. The African bird is believed to have been so called as originally imported through the Turkish dominions; it was called Guinea-fowl when brought by the Portuguese from Guinea in West Africa. After the two birds were distinguished and the names differentiated, turkey was erroneously retained for the American bird, instead of the African. From the same imperfect knowledge and confusion Meleagris, the ancient name of the African fowl, was unfortunately adopted by Linnæus as the generic name of the American bird.

1860   E. B. Tylor Anahuac (1861) ix. 228   The turkey, which was introduced into Europe from Mexico, was called ‘huexolotl’ from the gobbling noise it makes.

What Thanksgiving means for most of New York City
Macy's "first ever giant inflatable balloon," 1927
(according to U.S. News & World Report)

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