Selecting a turkey for Thanksgiving has, in the modern world, become a laborious exercise. The bird we take for granted at mealtime is a domesticated version of the American wild turkey (scientific name Meleagris gallopavo), a relation of the guinea fowl. Much criticism has been heaped on the American turkey in recent years, fueled by claims that the birds – not known for being very intelligent to start – are having their breast size artificially enhanced by hormones to appeal to the tastes of the American marketplace. The end result is a dumb animal with breasts so large it actually topples over when it tries to walk (scientific name Meleagris kardashian). If your holiday dinner tastes run against the industrially constructed, you can opt against farm raised and choose instead free range, organic – or my personal favorite – Kentucky Wild Turkey (scientific name Meleagris gallopavo one-oh-one).
Over time and across cultures the turkey has developed many nicknames; for example in Chinese the bird is called huoji (火雞 / 火鸡) meaning “fire chicken”. In Swahili, it’s bata mzinga, meaning “the great duck”. To the Japanese the bird is known as shichimenchō (シチメンチョウ / 七面鳥), meaning “seven-faced bird”. To the Greeks it’s gallopoúla (γαλοπούλα), the “French chicken”, but the French refer to the turkey as la dinde, short for poulet d’Inde or “chicken from India”. And of course, most college students know the Kentucky Wild Turkey affectionately (or not, depending on how last night went at the bar) as “Kickin’ Chicken”.
Kentucky Wild Turkey has some commonality with its fowl cousin. Both owe much of their appeal to corn, with Kentucky Wild Turkey being 51% minimum by law. While the season for hunting American wild turkey normally runs for a month in the spring and for around 10 weeks in the fall, Kentucky Wild Turkey is always in season and rarely requires hunting, being as it is available in all 50 states and many foreign countries.
This brings us to a discussion of Ben Franklin, one of America’s early, and greatest, diplomats. During the turbulent period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of our Constitution, Franklin mused in a letter to his daughter that – instead of the bald eagle – the turkey would have made a more appropriate symbol of the new Republic.
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Except of Franklin’s letter to his daughter Sally, written from France, January 26th, 1784.
Franklin’s argument, now well over two hundred and thirty years old, raises an interesting question of what we would eat for Thanksgiving if he had gotten his way, and much more importantly what we would drink while preparing the traditional holiday meal? Bourbon it seems has become the tipple of choice for cooks, food writers and food producers on Thanksgiving Eve, with many taking to the internet via Facebook and Twitter to proclaim their imbibing. So just in case Congress ever takes up the debate over national symbols and Thanksgiving food choices again, I felt it reasonable to take necessary precautions and stock the liquor cabinet – just in case….
NOTE: Information on scientific and cultural names for turkey have been taken from relevant Wikipedia articles.