Christmas Countdown - Day 22 - Why are we gobbling up turkey?

2 min to read

Last year about 620 million turkeys were eaten at Christmas. 

There are ancient accounts of us eating turkey. There have been archaeological finds of domesticated turkeys in Mesoptania 2000 years ago. It is the domesticated turkeys from south west U.S. and Mexico, that trace its origin’s to what we eat now. 

A theory is that when Europeans first encountered turkeys in America, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, which were already being imported into Europe by Turkey merchants, and  these birds were nicknamed Turkey coqs. The name of the North American bird thus became turkey fowl or Indian turkeys, which was then shortened to just turkeys.

The story goes that the Yorkshireman, William Strickland,in 1526,  purchased six turkeys from indigenous traders, and brought them, by ship, from America back to Britain. Records show that they were raised by a local farmer, Thomas Tusser, and in 1573 turkeys were being served for Christmas dinner. 

Turkey farms prospered. There is an account that by 1720 circa 250,000 turkeys were walked from Norfolk to the London markets in small flocks of 300-1000. They started in August and fed on stubble fields and feeding stations. Their feet were dipped in tar to protect them. Some were given little leather boots to walk to London before they were slaughtered! 

Henry VIII is believed to be the first king to eat turkey in the 16th century. 

Before the turkey became a popular dish, people in England were having for Christmas dinner swans and peacocks if they were rich, or bustards or herons, if they were poor. Boar’s head and geese were also popular Christmas dinners. It has always been the case that people wanted to eat something different at Christmas than that usually ate.  

Clement Moore’s Cratchit family (A Christmas Carol) is said to have really helped cement the turkey’s place at the center of the holiday meal. 

Since people in the US and Canada follow the traditions of their ancestors from England quite diligently, eating turkeys for Christmas became popular back at the turkey’s original home. 

In the 1950’s farm technology improved, and the price of turkey went down. Also, the fact that homes had refrigerators the turkey became the meal of choice for Christmas. It is noted that one large bird can feed an extended family.  

There has been some snubbing of turkey.  It is something that is given out by charities.  The rich will eat their beef.  

Since you now know why you eat turkey you might want to know something about the birds. 

  • Both male and female turkeys are eaten.   
  • Male turkeys are bigger. 
  • Female turkeys are called hens. 
  • Male turkeys are called stags in the UK and toms in the US 
  • Baby turkeys are called poults or turkeylings 
  • Turkeys are naturally social, vocal and aggressive. 
  • Domestic turkeys really can’t fly but wild turkeys can fly at 55 mph and run at an impressive speed of 20 mph. 
  • There are over 40 varieties of turkeys, with all colours of feathers, but white ones are preferred because they have white pin feathers (the little ones still left on) and the consumer finds these less objectionable.  

A turkey has an ugly head with some odd parts

Anatomical structures on the head and throat of a domestic turkey. 1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (Dewlap), 4. Major Caruncle, 5. Beard. (Photo Credit)

Eating turkey is reputed to cause sleepiness, because it contains the chemical tryptophan. It is more likely that the large holiday dinners, with alcohol, served in a relaxed atmosphere, are the real contributors to post-meal sleepiness.