No more turkey!

Find out what you've been stuffing yourself with for the last few days: Éanna Ní Lamhna on the history of this strange-looking birds, which were even more tasty in the time of the settlers


I  bet you are sorry that you ordered such a big turkey, as you face into the fourth day of Christmas and the rapidly drying-out carcass is still well covered with breast meat and staring accusingly at you from the fridge. Why is there so much meat on it anyway? You do know of course that such grossly endowed birds are quite unnatural and are not able to fly. They would never be able to survive in the wild. ‘Tis far from such turkeys our grandparents were reared!The turkey is a native of North America. It is a bird of open woodlands and occurred all over the USA prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. There are two distinct species – the North American Wild Turkey and the Central American Ocellated Turkey.

The carcass reposing in your fridge is descended from the wild American turkey – in fact the Eastern sub-species of same. There are four other sub-species of Wild Turkey in the US, some of which live in pine forests at high altitudes. The founding fathers were delighted to find such a substantial piece of eating in the New World. Biogeography was not their strong suit, so they could only compare it with birds they were used to from Europe. The only vaguely similar bird was the African Helmeted Guineafowl which was imported into Europe from Madagascar. This came on a trade route through Turkey and so was called a Turkey Cock. The American bird was called a turkey in English as it was sort of like it. Interestingly, other languages reflect its origins more clearly. In Turkish for example, it is called hindi and in French d'inde. These reflect the belief that America was actually India, as Christopher Columbus thought, and so these birds were from India. The official binomial name for this turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, meleagris being the Greek word for a guinea fowl.But the settlers got stuck in to this New World and set about clearing the woodland habitat for farming.

The Eastern Wild Turkey habitat was devastated and numbers nosedived to about 30,000 in the wild by the beginning of the 1900s. Great efforts were then made to protect and encourage the breeding of the surviving wild population, so that Americans could continue to pursue their favourite sport – hunting. There are now wild turkeys in every state except Alaska – numbers have risen to seven million and hunting is legalised.But of course it is not this fit, wild, tasty bird that graces Thanksgiving or Christmas tables, as we slavishly follow American customs. Much animal husbandry has resulted in white birds with enormous bosoms and indeed very little taste.

These can be reared indoors, fed a vegetarian diet and produced in time for the Christmas market. People who have hardly turned the oven on all year are expected to cook this alarmingly-sized bird on Christmas morning – whether they have an alarmingly-sized hangover or not! No wonder our radios have been resounding with pleas from the Food Safety Authority, asking us not to poison ourselves in the process.Fadó, fadó we ate geese at Michaelmas on 29 September. In the Middle Ages this was the time for feasting a good harvest. The flesh was tasty as the goose had been grazing on the stubble after the harvest. We also ate geese at Christmas when it was a much fattier bird, having been fed in anticipation of the occasion. And although with its feathers on it looks quite large, it has a small quantity of meat in proportion to its size. One never had to endure the sight of it after St Stephen's Day.