Okay, Matt: Now that turkey day is past, I'll try again: Why do we call the gobblers turkeys? Why do the Turks call them indias? And I've since learned from an Indian friend that the birds are unknown in his country, so I guess that takes care of my third question (What do they call them in India?). Talk turkey to me. — Ian Elliott, Oceanside
History ain’t what it used to be. Here’s another fine “American” tradition shot full of holes with a blunderbuss. If your Thanksgiving table was like most, Ian, half the stuff on it originated in Mexico or South America. And that includes our friend Tomas Turkey.
If the turkey has a reputation as a dizzy bird, it’s because he’s been yanked around the world and back again, given five or six different names, and been mistaken for all sorts of other birds. My little pin head would be spinning, too. Consider the social history of Meleagrus gallopavo.
First, for the record, wild turkeys are native to mountains and oak and pine forests of North America and Mexico. Not Turkey, not India, By the time Europeans hit the New World, Aztecs had long since domesticated the tasty beasts. (Turkey in mole sauce could be the original fast-food, sold in Aztec markets.) There’s some arguing about who exactly brought the first turkey back to King Ferdinand, but anyway, he ate it and ordered ten more pairs for the Spanish royal barnyard. They spread to the rest of Europe and were common domestic birds in England by the time the Pilgrims shoved off for the U.S. In their gear they packed turkeys — the great-great-great-etc.-grandbirds of Montezuma’s flocks — and they were more than a little surprised to find plenty of the wild version awaiting their arrival. But the colonists raised their domesticated flocks, more familiar and a whole lot easier to catch. According to food historian Waverley Root and other turkey-knowledgeable folks, today’s supermarket Butterball descends from the Mexican race of turkey, via Spain and England.
As for the bird’s name, a scholar of Nahuatl will have to give us the Aztec original. But when it got to Spain in the early 1500s, the turkey was dubbed pavon, peacock, after the similarlooking and already familiar delicacy. The French called the bird poulet d’inde, believing it was a big chicken from the West Indies. Northern Europeans thought it was from the East Indies, or India, maybe Calcutta, so it was a Kalekuttisch Hun (hen) in German, kalkoen in Dutch, and kalkon in Swedish. Turkeys in Turkey are called indias after the birds’ assumed source, the West Indies, not India.
Turkeys did reach India via the Portuguese trade, and the Indians called them peru because they thought...well, by now you can probably guess. Of course, there are no turkeys in Peru. Ya with me so far?
So what about the English name. Well, long before the New World turkey invaded that country in the mid-1500s, the Portuguese had introduced a type of large guinea fowl to England’s dinner table. The guinea fowl came from Africa, but because Portuguese trade routes to England went through Turkish territories, the Brits called the fowl “turkeys.” When the New World turkey arrived via France and Spain, somebody decided they looked a lot like the guinea fowl and gave them the same name. So the birds sailed back to their home in the Americas as “turkeys.”
The Norman Bayeux Tapestries, dating from about 1087, include turkeys in a border design, so Norse explorers probably saw them in North America a thousand years ago. Smart of them to leave the birds here and postpone all the name confusion.