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What a turkey

The Adams County Record of Council, Idaho

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If someone calls you a turkey, it's usually not a compliment. That might not be the case today if Ben Franklin had gotten his way. He thought the turkey, being native to America, should be our national bird. If that had happened, we might have turkeys on our coins. And the president might speak to the American people from behind a podium with a big turkey on the front, so depending on what kind of president he or she was, there might be a turkey on both sides of the podium.

The first case of something being called a turkey when it wasn't a turkey was in the year 1500-some-thing. People were importing guinea fowl into Europe, and because they came there through Turkey, people started calling them turkeys. (The birds, not the people in Turkey.)

So when Europeans came to America they found out what a real turkey looked like and they felt bad for calling guinea fowl turkeys... at least until the politician was invented, and then they found something else to call a turkey. Did you know the long, loose skin that hangs down on a turkey's neck is called a "watde?"

Turkeys have been in the U.S. even longer than politicians. We know that because there is a fairly detailed fossil record of early turkey ancestors from coast to coast. Native people in Mexico first domesticated turkeys; some say it was the Aztecs. Now the turkeys in the U.S. want to keep Mexican turkeys from crossing the border. Except around Thanksgiving.

William Strickland liked turkeys so much that he brought some home with him to England in 1500-something. His family was so taken with turkeys that they put the bird on the Strickland family coat of arms, which is still in use today.

After the Pilgrims got so hungry they resorted to eating the turkeys that the Indians brought them, they found out they liked turkey meat. After that, turkey got associated with harvest feasts and being thankful for not being a turkey. So turkey and Thanksgiving became synonymous. (I had a cousin who became synonymous, but he converted back to Southern Baptist.)

By 1916, Thanksgiving was referred to as "Turkey Day" due to the popularity of the bird at the traditional feast. Back then people ate a lot of wild turkeys. Some of them drank wild turkey. Eventually wild turkeys were almost wiped out. The federal government stepped in with protection in 1991, and they are now found in 49 states.

Sometime in the 1940s, turkey raising started turning into a big business. The predominant breed sold in markets today is the Broad Breasted White. It was bred specifically to have more white meat than dark meat: the ratio for these birds is 65% white meat to 45% dark. These birds can grow to be as big as a small politician, sometimes weighing around 50 pounds. In contrast, wild turkeys only weigh in at a maximum of about 25 pounds.

A lady in a supermarket was looking at the small turkey's the market had for sale. She asked the box boy, "Don't these turkey's get any bigger?" He said, "No. They're dead."

Domestic turkeys are now so heavy they can't fly. Wild turkeys can fly. (My cousin got so much wild turkey in him that he thought he could fly.) Turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour. Wild turkeys can run up a bar tab.

I read on the Internet that turkeys have heart attacks, and that "entire fields of turkeys were known to drop dead from the loud noise of Air Force jets breaking the sound barrier while on test flights." That's probably why turkeys stopped going on test flights.

In recent times, farmers have begun raising more traditional turkey breeds. These "heritage" birds have a white to dark meat ratio closer to 50/50, and the flavor of their meat is said to be noticeably gamey in comparison with the Broad Breasted variety. In spite of the fact that heritage turkey meat can sell for nearly $9 a pound, it seems to be getting more popular every year.

In 1935, the per capita consumption of turkey was only 1.7 pounds. Today that figure is close to 20 pounds per person per year, with 74 percent of that consumption being in sliced turkey sandwiches.

It has become a tradition for the president to "pardon" a turkey every Thanksgiving season. Maybe someday it will become a tradition for turkeys to pardon a president.

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Original Publication Date: November 19, 2014

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