Author Michael Blencowe
Lewes Community Wildlife Officer
Michael Blencowe looks at the un-natural history of a bird that will temporarily be one of the commonest species in Sussex this Christmas. This article originally appeared in the 'Christmas Feast' themed issue of Viva Lewes.
Post-modernist author William Burroughs named his infamous 1959 novel after “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Like the drug-fuelled characters of ‘Naked Lunch’ 76% of us will soon be itching for our festive fix from a bird which has taken a strange, disjointed trip through time and space to settle between the sprouts and potatoes. So, before you start gobbling this Christmas, allow yourself a frozen moment with the defrosted, oven-cooked, gravy-coated bird perched on the end of your fork. Let’s talk turkey.
There are just two species of turkey in the world.The stunning iridescent ocellated turkey is confined to the Yucatan peninsula while the commoner wild turkey has a wide range that extends from the sun-baked savannahs of central Mexico north through the oak forests of the United States.
The wild turkey is a monstrous, spectacular bird. The huge males prowl the forests, their ruffled black feathers billowing like a cloud of volcanic ash. From this darkness erupts a bare blue reptilian head with lava flows of red, warty skin dripping from it.These grotesque, leathery skin-flaps – the snood, wattle and caruncle – inflate with blood and are used to impress and entice females.
This extraordinary animal was revered by primitive people who plucked its feathers for ceremonial rituals. Centuries ago one population of wild turkey from the hills of south-central Mexico was tamed. By the time the Aztecs ruled the roost they wore turkey, ate turkey and prayed to Chalchiuhtotolin their turkey god. A civilization devoted to blood, fire and feathers.
The invading Conquistadors soon put a stop to all that and the victorious Spaniards returned to Europe from their Aztec conquests with ships laden with gold, silver and turkey. Not long after (allegedly in 1524) turkeys landed in England where some geographic confusion about their country of origin gave the bird its name. Soon these supposed Turkish delights were being carved and served to the wealthy. Henry VIII may well have been one of the first Brits to enjoy a turkey for Christmas lunch (and then no doubt spent the rest of the afternoon asleep in front of the jester).
In England the turkey’s domestication continued. In eastern counties specialist poulterers developed breeds such as Norfolk Black, Cambridge Bronze and the Broad Breasted White; the bird that we eat today.
In 1620 the Pilgrim settlers headed west across the Atlantic and, in a ‘coals to Newcastle’ scenario, shipped these brainwashed bird breeds back to their native North America. Here they proudly presented them to the bemused native people who for centuries had been enjoying the rich, dark meat of the larger original wild turkeys. It must have been like aliens landing outside the Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes and giving us a small glass of weak lager. The strange, circular odyssey of the turkey was complete.
Today Britain remains a nation of turkey addicts. Ten million of them were eaten here last Christmas. So on Christmas day stop staring at your fork and satisfy your Christmas craving – get it while it’s hot. It’ll be cold turkey for us all tomorrow.