A Bird With Multiple Names, Two
Countries & Some Holiday Mash
This was supposed to be the definitive post on why turkeys are called turkeys, what they have to do with Turkey and Peru, and why would anyone care about it.
Instead, it turned out to be just another holiday stupor, a tipsy search on the Internet and a million half-funny comments on why no one seems to have a clear idea.
So, risking making the article almost shorter than its headline, let’s just cover the highlights, while we check the oven and get properly loaded before the guests have parked at the curb.
Americans (including William Burroughs) hold Thanksgiving very dear to their hearts because the holiday is based on a historical folktale and, to this day, it’s still a family gathering by excellence in ways religious dates could never be.
Granted, at this point in time, it’s no longer all about the turkey. Aunts have various dietary needs. Some care only for the sweet potatoes and cranberry jam. And children became vegan and will have their own Tofurkey.
The cooking frenzy that used to animate families of yore have since lost much of its luster with the advent of live football and the Macy’s Parade on TV.
Besides, arguments usually ensue even before all relatives have arrived at the front door of the designated home. So, amid all of these, the turkey was somehow downgraded to a more supporting role, from it’s perched position of a few decades ago.
Still, since it’s a family-based holiday, everyone seems to make an extra effort to avoid heated discussions over anything current, such as politics, the state of the economy and how come Uncle Bob is drinking so fast.
So, to avoid that everyone but Grandma and Dad resort to their iPhones to text-message the people they’d really wish they were with right now, subjects have to be thought out in advance to be brought to the table, so we all have something to talk about.
Many people, right about now, are planning on bringing up the subject of why we call the bird turkey in the U.S., while Turkey, the country, call it something else.
It’s really a thrilling subject only if you’re in the fifth grade, but at least, it’s a safe one to be discussed before everyone passes out on the couches.
But, alas, it’s not an easy subject, as it turns out. A lazy online search brings up so much speculation disguised as historical explanation to make one’s mind as dizzy as after a few extra servings of the carving itself.
While some sites affirm that the North American bird was misnamed after a guinea fowl, traded by Turkish merchants in the Middle Ages, others are quick to point that there wasn’t a country named Turkey then.
After a few more peacock-displays of prolix erudition, completely incomprehensible to anyone but their own egos, one tries to get a better insight by the comments that follow each post, one even more incoherent than the previous, but still way more entertaining that the main post.
There’s where one is informed, amid a jokingly attempt or two, that in Brazil, for instance, they call a turkey, peru, just like the name of that other South American country.
Of course, if you’re in the market to learn something, there’s always a lot of it to absorb. For instance, either the Agriocharis ocellataphasia or the Meleagris gallopavo, the main species in North America, were the first animals to be domesticated in the continent. And they diverged from pheasants 11 million years ago.
Fascinating, isn’t it? You may also find an infinitude of cultures that dedicated festivals to the feisty bird, including the Aztecs, the Mayan, Navajo indians and others.
But before you go to your siesta, know that many think Christopher Columbus may have had a hand in calling it turkey, and that Spanish conquistadors were instrumental in disseminating it through their occupied territories and nations.
But what’s in a name? Well, if you’re in Turkey, the country, you may have some shwarma. Most Hispanics you meet would call it pavo, which is a contraction of the Latin name of one of the species, and the Brazilians, with their big appetites, would rather eat peru on Christmas and New Years Eve.
Thanksgiving, and that you may certainly know, has not much meaning outside the U.S. and Canada, and even there, it’s celebrated on a different date. But who’d have a problem with the folktale connected to this date?
We like that it speaks of the Pilgrims’ spirit of resilience and purpose even in the face of an unconquered and utterly wild new world ahead of them. And of the cooperation they forged with the Native Americans they’d help eradicate years later.
We like that it takes us out of our narrow daily concerns, even if just for a few hours, when we envision the dishes we plan to cook and spend most of our time off actually cooking them, for the enjoyment of others.
Above all, we love the time off itself. Smack halfway through the end of the week but not quite lost in the weekend. And some of us are luck enough to even have tomorrow off.
Coming to think of it, even if you’re depressed because you’ve been forced for such a long time to have a time off, since no one seems to want to hire you, it’s also a time off of that time off.
Or at least, you’ll try to make it through it. So, you may need to watch a few minutes of that boring parade. So, you may have the urge to hide in the kitchen or in the rec room, alone with your thoughts.
What the hell? You may even find yourself sharing a shot or two with Uncle Bob. At the end of the day, why would anyone bring a godamned rot subject such as the state of the economy and ruin everybody else’s rare day of having their mind exactly off of it?
So, you still don’t know why on earth they’d call the bird a country, or the other way around. Or that in other language… Forget it. The way things are, you wouldn’t make through the creation of Turkey before slipping back into the folktale.
And that, everyone at the table knows by heart. And that’s what everyone wants, the comfort of the familiarity. Those aging faces, the kids growing, let’s hope that for at least a few minutes today, you remind yourself that things won’t change and that is exactly how you want them. Just imagine. Happy Thanksgiving.