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Turkey Trivia: Should We Be Grateful? by Marjorie Dorfman
We all know we are supposed to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but does anyone out there know why we do? This is not a trick question: its just that there are many things that are not known about this bird that has been donating it life to this country every last Thursday in November for a long time now. (In fact, some six hundred seventy-five million pounds of turkey are eaten each Thanksgiving in the United States alone.) Read on and learn some interesting turkey facts, even if you too can stand among the millions who claim: you were "absent the day they did that."
Let us begin with the name. Some say that the Native American name for turkey is "firkee" and that the word derives from this source. It is known that Americas first inhabitants utilized turkey feathers to stabilize their arrows. Why firkee, you might ask rather intelligently? Sometimes simple is the only way to go. When a turkey is scared, it makes a noise that sounds like "turk, turk, turk." So much for originality in thought and deed.
Others claim that the name dates back to Christopher Columbus who thought he was in India and believed the wild bird he discovered on the new land was a type of peacock. He called it tuka which means peacock in Tamil (an Indian language). How he came to speak this language when he was clearly an Italian working for Spaniards is a matter for another time, place and holiday discussion.
If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the turkey would have been the national bird of America and not the eagle and perhaps we would be eating something else on Thanksgiving Day. Franklin argued passionately on behalf of the turkey because he felt that even though it was "a silly bird," it was a better choice than the bald eagle, which he felt was "a coward." He stated his feelings quite clearly in a letter written to his daughter.
It is believed that turkeys have been around for more than 10 million years, giving them plenty of time to reproduce before the pilgrims and Thanksgiving came along. Wild turkeys were almost wiped out in the early 1900s, but today they thrive in every state except Alaska. The turkey is native to Northern Mexico and the Eastern United States. Domesticated in Mexico, it was brought to Europe in the 16th century. It is believed that a man named William Strickland from Yorkshire, England, brought the turkey to Great Britain in 1526. As the story goes, he acquired six turkeys from American Indian traders and sold them for tuppence in Bristol. It is known for sure that Henry VIII was the first English monarch to make roasted turkey fashionable Christmas fare.
The birds themselves are a rather strange lot. Turkeys have great hearing but no external ears. They have an excellent sense of taste but a poor sense of smell. (One can only wonder if they realize too late what is really cooking. Alas!) Domesticated turkeys cannot fly, but wild ones can for short distances and at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. They are no slouches at land travel either, able to reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. Turkeys are also known to suffer from heart attacks. In fields near the Air Force test areas over which the sound barrier was broken, turkeys were known to drop dead from the shock of the passing jets (as if knowing you will be eaten for dinner isnt enough to strike you dead wherever you may roam).
The ballroom dance known as the "Turkey Trot" became popular in the early 1900s. It was so named for the short, jerky steps that were similar to those a turkey makes. It was done to fast ragtime music such as Scott Joplins Maple Leaf Rag from about 1900-1910. The basic moves were four hopping steps sideways with the feet well apart, first on one leg, then the other with a rise on the ball of the foot, followed by a drop on the heel. It is believed that the dance became increasingly popular as it spread from Chicago to Broadway via Irene and Vernon Castle. Its fame was also defiantly spurred by the Vaticans denouncement of the dance as offensively suggestive. The more efforts made by conservative members of society to ban the Turkey trot, the more popular it became, losing hold only to the Fox Trot, which came into vogue about 1914.
"Turkey In The Straw" is a well-known American folk song that dates back to the early 19th century. It was first popularized in the late 1820s and early 1830s and performed by singers in blackface, notably George Washington Dixon, Bob Farrell and George Nichols. Published either in New York or Baltimore, all of the above-mentioned performers claimed to have written the song and the issue will never be resolved. The song has an eleven-note range and remains in key throughout. It is a catchy tune with many lyrical versions the earliest of which were written by Dan Bryant (of Bryant Minstrels) and published in 1861. They went as follows:
Turkey in de straw, turkey in de hay
Turkey in de straw, turkey in de hay
Roll em up and twist em up a high tuc-ka-haw
An twist em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw
The turkey has slipped its buttery way into popular culture and slang expressions as well. "Cold turkey" describes the actions of a person who gives up a habit or addiction all at once rather than gradually easing the process through reduction or using replacement medication (or the names of other birds). It is thought that the expression derives from the phrase, "talk turkey," which denotes someone dealing directly with a subject. Others claim that the expression comesfrom the comparison of a cold turkey carcass and the state of the withdrawing addict, most notable the cold swats and goose bumps. In 1971, a comedy film was released by the name of "Cold Turkey." It was the story of a small town that gives up smoking en masse for thirty days in order to win a large cash prize.
So the next time you sit down to eat some turkey (which will probably be soon considering the time of year), be respectful and give it a little salute or at least say hello. The bird has done a lot for us down through the years and maybe none of us are really grateful enough. Should we be? Well, thats a horse, or should I say, bird of another color!