How did the turkey acquire the name ‘turkey’ without having anything to do with the country, Turkey? It travelled to Europe and beyond not from the East, but from the West, aboard a Spanish galleon. It is a native of the Americas, and its earliest habitat seems to have been the highlands of Mexico, where fossils ten million years old have been found on the central plateau near Puebla. The Aztecs have been credited with domesticating the wild "huexolotl" or "guajolote" as it is known today, and prized it highly, honouring it with its own religious festival, which took place every 200 days. For this special occasion, turkey eggshells were saved during the preceding months and spread on the roads and streets “in memory of the goodness of the god who had given them fowl”. The turkey was a standard inhabitant of Moctezuma’s famed zoo, its feathers valued for headdresses and jewellery, its flesh a prominent feature on the menu of royal banquets; and when it was served to the Spanish conqueror, Cortés, he is said to have relished its pale, abundant flesh, while Bernardino de Sahagún said that turkey was “very good tasting, it leads the meats, it is the master, it is tasty, fat, savoury”. The sound of the turkeys' gobble could be heard all over the great market place of Tenochtitlan, where they were sold in their thousands, and turkey is still considered a special dish in Mexico, served at fiestas, weddings and christenings, while ‘mole poblano’, turkey in a chilli sauce flavoured with chocolate and thickened with seeds and nuts, is virtually the national dish.
From its birthplace in Mexico, the wild turkey extended its territory slightly to the south, as far as Central America, but more particularly to the north, into the United States and into the diet and traditions of the first inhabitants. I had always thought that the magnificent ceremonial feather headdresses seen in the Westerns of my childhood were fashioned out of eagle feathers, but it is equally likely that they were made from the feathers of a wild turkey – lustrous black with a green metallic sheen and white tips. Turkey feathers were also used as flights for arrows, and the spurs from the legs of male turkeys became barbs on the arrowheads. However, although the first inhabitants hunted and ate the wild turkey, it was the European immigrants who introduced the domesticated turkey to North America, and the turkey is even reputed to have sailed aboard the Mayflower with the Pilgrim Fathers – and therefore, every November, a Thanksgiving turkey, descended perhaps from a wild turkey which strutted across the plateau of Puebla millions of years ago, sits in crisp and golden splendour on every American table.
The wild turkey was a strong bird, fleet of wing and foot, belonging to the genus Meleagris, and more specifically, to Meleagris gallopavo, although Meleagris ocellata or “ocellated turkey” was native to the southern Mexican state of Yucatán and was never domesticated. The turkey as we know it today is descended from the wild Meleagris gallopavo, which arrived in Europe in the early 1520s, part of a standard, obligatory cargo from the Americas to Spain, as every vessel was required to carry a minimum of five pairs. By 1541, it was being extensively bred throughout the continent and lost no time in ingratiating itself with kings (notably Henry VIII, François Ier, and Charles IX whose wedding table it graced) and establishing itself as a favourite banqueting dish – hardly surprising as the sweet, tender, juicy turkey must have been a very welcome respite from gristly roast peacock and fishy roast swan! Another king, Edward VII, is credited with replacing the goose with the turkey and bringing it into fashion as the highlight of the Christmas meal in Britain, from whence the custom spread further afield, but the turkey may well have taken pride of place on the festive tables of the rich long before that.
So much for provenance. What about the name? There are any number of notions, such as the fact that it came from the wild turkey’s call – something along the lines of turk-turk-turk. Or it could have been named after the 16th century Levantine merchants who traded livestock and other goods along the Mediterranean coast and were known as ‘Turkes’. Another possibility is that the Spaniards, having likened the “huexolotl” to the African guineafowl, which reached Europe via Turkey and was therefore known as “Turkey fowl” or “Turkey bird”, assigned it the same name. But the explanation which appeals most to me is that it was named after the peacock. This makes sense as the male turkey – rather endearingly known as a "tom" – struts and displays its feathers in the same way, and although it lacks the peacock’s elegance and flamboyant beauty, it is a extraordinary looking bird in its own right. "Tukki" is the Hebrew word for peacock and might have been used by the 16th century Spanish Jewish people; and "tuka" is Tamil for peacock, perhaps confirming the theory that Columbus thought the New World was part of India. Certainly an Indian connection would be supported by the French word for turkey – "dindon" or "d’Inde", "from India", but then again, the Americas were originally known as the “New” or “Spanish Indies”....
However the huexolotl acquired the name turkey, it has come to play an important part in festive gastronomy far beyond its homeland. Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy your roast American peacock.