How Turkey Went Global

One bird’s journey from the forests of New England to the farms of Iran

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

In the annals of packing blunders, surely there’s a special place for the time English settler ships brought European-raised turkeys to New England in 1629. There’s forgetting a toothbrush, for example, and then there’s living in a dropping-filled boat for three months in order to deposit anemic, sea-ruffled birds in forests positively lousy with their larger, fatter cousins.

Today, America’s most famous fowl is consumed on all seven continents, is a mainstay of European poultry production, enjoys its highest per-capita consumption rate in Israel, and can be found on farms from Poland to Iran to South Africa. To understand how that happened, one could do worse than start with the odd cargo of 17th-century settler ships.

According to the zooarchaeologist Stanley J. Olsen in the Cambridge World History of Food, it was the ocellated turkey further south, not the turkey “that is regarded as the Thanksgiving bird in the United States,” that made the first leap toward world turkey domination. A favorite of the Mayans—and confirmed by recent DNA analysis to have been domesticated in at least two areas of the Americas prior to Columbus’s arrival in the New World—the bird was an instant hit with Spanish explorers and conquistadors.

When you consider the slow speed of travel in the 16th century, it’s nothing short of astonishing how quickly turkeys caught on. The trigger may have been King Ferdinand of Spain’s order, in 1511, for every ship sailing from the Indies to Spain to bring 10 turkeys—five male and five female. Olsen dates formal Spanish turkey farming to 1530, by which point turkeys had already made it to Rome and were about to debut in France as well. From there the birds hopped over to England, where they got one of their odder names. (In the Romance languages and German, the bird was called “Indian chicken,” because the Americas were referred to as “the Indies.”) The origin of the word “turkey,” according to many contemporary scholars, unfortunately boils down to the English being rubes: the word “Turkey” meant, “You know, exotic things from far away. Like Turkey the country. That’s exotic and far away.”

The success of Central American, European-cultivated turkeys in England from the reign of Henry VIII onwards is what made it possible to send them on ships to Virginia in 1584 and Massachusetts in 1629, “a distinct case of carrying coals to Newcastle,” admitted Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald in their culinary history entitled America’s Founding Food. Not only were the New England birds reportedly bigger, but “William Wood [the author of a 1634 guide to New England] stated that they could be found year-round in groups of a hundred or more. Thomas Morton [the founder of the colony of Merrymount] was told by Indians he queried that as many as a thousand wild turkeys might be found in the nearby woods on any given day.”

It was these New England turkeys (the Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, according to a 2009 DNA study) that achieved new heights of culinary fame, while simultaneously offering a lesson in the complexities of colonialism. When the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote of going on a wild-turkey hunt in 1794 in Connecticut, he observed that the flesh was so superior to that of European domesticated animals that his readers should try to procure, at the very least, birds with lots of space to roam.

That advice might seem ironic to modern readers not just due to the appalling state most turkeys are raised in today, according to Staveley and Fitzgerald, but also because wild turkeys were at the time of Brillat-Savarin’s hunt already close to extinction in New England—a stark reminder of the environmental aspects of European imperialism and their effect on Native American ways of life. Non-domesticated turkey populations survived further west, and only returned to New England with the reforesting of farmland cleared by early settlers. This isn’t the only reflection in turkey history of the disastrous dynamic between Europeans and Native Americans: just look to Jared Diamond’s controversial Guns, Germs, and Steel theory that Americans were at a disadvantage relative to Europeans in part because turkeys and dogs were the only domesticable animals in Mesoamerica, leading to lower levels of agriculture and lower disease resistance. (The Eurasian germs that laid waste to American civilizations developed in part through concentrations of humans and livestock.)

Why did turkey prove so popular in Europe and among European settlers? There are two main theories, one having to do with familiarity and the other with class. As David Gentilcore observed in Food and Health in Early Modern Europe, turkeys received an uncomplicated welcome in Europe that was not offered, for example, to corn or tomatoes. Part of the reason for that, he argued, was that Europeans knew what to do with the bird’s meat: “If the new food could be viewed as a substitute for another food, then its chances of meeting with approbation were higher.”

The turkey’s particular pattern of adoption, others contend, was related to social status as well. Meat consumption was a prominent social marker in early modern Europe, and turkey, when it entered the continent, occupied a unique position. It was the ultimate in luxury meat, being an exotic new food from conquered lands (see: special orders from King Ferdinand). But it was also a member of the poultry group—one of the few land meats non-nobles ever got to eat, since fowl could be relatively easily kept for their eggs and didn’t qualify as game. Turkey didn’t make it to the common man immediately: at first, it was so rare and precious that sumptuary laws in Venice, according to Gentilcore, actually “prohibited the eating of turkeys and partridges at the same meal: the inference being that one rare bird at a time ought to be enough. Similar legislation had been passed in England in 1541.”

But by the 19th century, turkey was established and cheap enough to become the standard bourgeois Christmas bird in England. Turkeys popped up, according to the museum curator Susan Rossi-Wilcox, in Charles Dickens’s wife’s recipes and the novelist’s notes about holiday gifts.

In the process, distinct culinary traditions developed in different countries: England and North America embraced roast-turkey versions, often with bread-based stuffings or oyster sauce. New England, according to Fitzgerald and Stavely, had a Thanksgiving tradition of turkey accompanied by chicken pie, a meaty “supplement.” In France, François Pierre la Varenne included a recipe for turkey stuffed with truffles, and one for turkey stuffed with raspberries, in his Le Cuisinier François, considered one of the foundational works of French cuisine. (Dinde truffée, despite its exorbitant cost, or perhaps because of it, took off. The raspberry idea less so.) In Spain, turkeys got doused with brandy. The famed food researcher and cookbook author Claudia Roden has even unearthed one “country house” tradition of feeding the turkeys brandy while they were still alive—probably not worth trying with New England’s new crop of wild birds, who are pretty boisterous and difficult when stone-cold sober. Europeans also brought turkeys with them to their later colonial expeditions. The scholar Cynthia Chou has pointed to one recollection of turkeys on elite menus in 19th-century British Singapore, along with curries and “tropical fruits.”

Postwar innovations in poultry production accelerated the spread of turkey around the world. As of 2012, global turkey-meat production was estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at 5.63 million metric tons. Around half of that came from the United States (with strong contributions elsewhere in the Americas from Brazil and Canada, followed by Chile, Argentina, and Mexico), and around a third from the European Union. Substantial turkey-production operations were also evident in Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Iran.

So while it’s no chicken, beef, or lamb, turkey has acquired an impressive global footprint over the centuries. And its story continues to be linked to geopolitics, just as it was in the 1500s. It’s hard, for example, to understand the curious prominence of Tunisia and Morocco in turkey production until one recalls that these countries only gained independence from France—a giant in the turkey world—in the 1950s. Germany’s economic advantage over France within the European Union is arguably also evident in turkey stats: In 2008, roughly when the financial crisis accentuated German economic might on the continent, Germany surpassed France as the leading European producer of turkeys, according to FAO numbers. France’s production had been declining in the early aughts and fell precipitously around the time of the financial crisis, as did turkey production in many other countries—unsurprising, given that turkey is not just a meat, but a celebratory meat, and thus probably more sensitive to economic shock than the relatively stable chicken. Emerging national economies are also reflected in the turkey market. A recent report by the turkey breeding-stock supplier Aviagen Turkeys predicted that turkey consumption will likely increase in East Asia, particularly China, as well as some areas of Africa and South America, as these populations get richer and the world population grows.

One of the more memorable lines about the turkey comes courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, who was disappointed about the eagle, a creature of “bad moral character,” being chosen for the United States’ emblem. The fact that the bird on the national seal looked more like a turkey than an eagle, he wrote, was probably a good thing: The turkey is “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.”

Ben might have gotten a bit carried away in his description, but perhaps he glimpsed the turkey’s potential global appeal. Or maybe he’d encountered turkeys raised the Spanish way. There’s no telling what those birds will get up to with enough brandy in them.