Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I love Thanksgiving, when the rains finally begin to come to San Francisco and it feels almost like we have seasons, and the streets are bustling with people buying ingredients for their mother's fabulous stuffing or dessert recipes, and, most important, my choirs have their winter concerts. This year I missed seeing various friends' choir concerts, making me feel almost as much a musical Scrooge as Edgar Allan Poe, who famously said:

"I never can hear a crowd of people singing and gesticulating altogether at an Italian opera without fancying myself at Athens, listening to that particular tragedy by Sophocles in which he introduces a full chorus of turkeys who set about bewailing the death of Meleager."

Poe is referring to Meleager, the lost tragedy of Sophocles, which, as you've probably assumed, didn't actually have a chorus of turkeys. This is certainly not to disparage their vocal stylings, but turkeys simply didn't make it to Europe until 1511.

What's up, then, with the name turkey? Why is a Mexican bird named for a large Eurasian democracy of the eastern Mediterranean? Why are turkeys called turkeys? English is not alone in naming this bird after random countries. The word in French is dinde, a contraction of the original d'Inde 'of India'. In Dutch it's called kalkoen, a contraction of the original Kalecutisher Han, 'hen of Calicut' (the city in India now called Kozhikode)'. India appears also in the name in Turkish (hindi) and Polish (indik) and a number of other languages. In Portuguese, it's called peru , and in Levantine Arabic it's dik habash, 'the Ethiopian bird', after two more countries. Were turkeys just named after any random country? It turns out the story of all these names is one of massive multilingal mistaken identity between the turkey and another bird, the guinea fowl.

Let's start with the turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo; on the right is a female. Six subspecies of wild turkeys are native to North America, as shown in the map below: Easter, Florida, Rio Grande, Merriam's, Gould's, and South Mexican.

Historic range of the wild turkey subspecies in North America, from C. F. Speller et al. PNAS 2010;107:2807-2812

The native Americans of south-central Mexico (possibly in Michoacan, or Puebla) domesticated the South Mexican turkey Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo by 180 AD (or maybe earlier; there are sporadic signs of turkey use as early as 800 BC). We don't know who the domesticators were, but they passed it on to the Aztecs when the Aztecs moved down into this region from the north.

At roughly the same time, or perhaps a bit later, the turkey was domesticated by the Anasazi, the ancestral Pueblo people who built the cliff dwellings in the southern United States. A lovely paper this year showed that this domestication was independent, and likely came from a different subspecies of wild turkey.

By the 15th century, there were vast numbers of domestic (South Mexican) turkey throughout the Aztec world. Cortes described the streets set aside for poultry markets in Tenotichtlan (Mexico City), and the Franciscan Motolinia noted that over 8,000 turkeys were sold every five days, all year round, in Tepeyac, just one of several suburban markets of the city.

The turkey plays a role in Aztec mythology, and Tezcatlipoca the trickster god had a manifestation as Chalchiuhtotolin ("the jeweled turkey") shown on the right. Turkeys were similarly important to the classic Maya culture, and turkey stew was a popular dish for both Aztec and Maya cooks; below is an Aztec turkey stew being eaten with tamales from the Florentine Codex. Aztecs made turkey with several different chili sauces, and one Aztec version, totolmolli, from totolin 'turkey, turkey hen', and molli 'sauce', was a dish that probably was incorporated into the 17th or 18th century invention of mole poblano de guajolote (but was of course quite different, since mole poblano is full of Old World ingredients like onion, garlic, pepper, cumin, cloves, anise, and sesame, and since the original molli did not have chocolate). The word for male turkey, huexolotl, gave rise to the modern Mexican Spanish word for turkey, guajolote.

The turkey's trip to Europe came very quickly after the Spanish arrived in the Americas. Columbus was given tasty gallinas de la tierra ('local chickens'), possibly turkeys, on the coast of Honduras in August of 1502. Two turkeys definitely arrived in Spain from Hispaniola on September 30, 1512. From this point, the spread of turkeys throughout Europe was astonishingly rapid. They were in Italy in Germany in 1530, France in 1538, England certainly by 1541 (and possibly by 1524) Denmark and Norway by 1550, and Sweden by 1556.

What did they Europeans call the turkey around 1550? They didn't call them totolín or huexolotl, or even use the Spanish galinas de la tierra or gallopavo, another early Spanish word for turkey that literally meant "chicken-peacock". Instead, the OED and early European dictionaries like the Nomenclator of Junius tell us that turkeys were called:

English: turkey cock, cock of Inde
French: poulle d'inde, poulle d'afrique
Dutch: Calkoensche henne, Turcsche henne
German: Indianisch hun, Kalekuttisch hun, Welschhun
Italian: Gallina D'India
Portuguese: Galinha do Peru

The many references to India and Turkey actually come from the name of a bird that arrived earlier in Europe, the guinea fowl. A guinea fowl is a bird roughly the size of a large chicken, most commonly black covered with white pearly spots, native to many areas of sub-Saharan Africa and domesticated there. Many of the earliest uses of the word turkey that the OED lists for the sixteenth century are actually describing the guinea fowl, suggesting that the name "turkey hen" preceded the name "guinea hen".

(1552): Meleagrides, byrdes, whiche we doo call hennes of Genny, or Turkie hennes.
(1578): With white and blacke spots, lyke to the feathers of the Turkie or Ginny hen.

The same situation is true of the French "poule d'inde" ("chicken of India"): the word is used first to describe the guinea hen, and then is transfered to the turkey.

How did the guinea fowl come to be called first "turkey cock" and then later "guinea fowl"? The guinea fowl first appears in 2400BC in Egyptian pyramid murals, imported by the Egyptians from Ethiopia and Sudan. In West Africa there are long oral traditions of breeding guinea fowl among the Mandinka and the Hausa. By 400 BC the Ethiopian guinea fowl were common in Greece and called meleagris after the hero Meleager. Meleager was the son of Althea and Oeneus, king of Calydon; perhaps you remember his story. When Althea was pregnant with Meleager, she overheard the three Fates say he would live only as long as a brand burning on her fireplace. Althea snatched the brand out of the flames, doused it, and hid it in a chest. Later, after Meleager had grown up to be a great hero, he helped raise a large company of warriors, among them one woman, Atalanta, to fight a fierce boar that was ravaging the countryside. After a long chase, Meleager killed the boar and gave the spoils (the hide and the head with its tusks) to Atalanta. Meleager's two uncles, envious, and angry about the inclusion of a woman in a hunt, took them from her in a fury. In a fit of rage Meleager killed them both. His mother Althea, hearing that her son had killed her brothers, took the brand from the chest and threw it on her fire, killing her son, and then killed herself in sorrow. Meleager's distraught sisters, dressed in black, cried so many tears over Meleager's tomb that, in pity, Artemis turned them into birds, Meleagrides. The tears that dotted their black mourning clothes she turned into white spots all over their bodies.

This story is beautiful but it's more likely the name meleagris is a corruption of melenargis 'black-silver', after its spots. Whichever it is, by the first century Italy and Greece were stocked with guinea fowl, and the Romans distributed the birds across their empire, but with the fall of the Roman Empire the guinea fowl was lost in Europe. The bird was still domesticated in west Africa and certainly in Ethiopia and Sudan, where Marco Polo saw them in the fourteenth century, and parts of Greece and Italy also seem to have preserved knowledge of the birds during the dark ages; indeed, in Italy they are still known by the old names of faraone ("Pharaoh's birds").

In the 15th century the guinea fowl began to be reintroduced to Europe. Collecting exotic animals was a hobby of Renaissance princes and the wealthy, and guinea fowl appeared in their royal parks and private menageries. In Provence in the 1460s Good King René fed his "poulles d'Inde" (India chickens) at his table, and in 1491, guinea fowl were received at Marseille for Anne de Beaujeu, the sister and regent for King Charles VIII of France. Evidence for the source of these birds come from Jacques Coeur, the fabulously wealthy French financier and trader with the Levant, whose nephew Jean de Village was sent to Alexandria in 1447 for an audience with the Mamluk sultan, and returned with galinias turcicas ('Turkish chickens'). The Mamluks, an originally Turkish but by now Circassian dynasty of soldiers of originally slave origin, were still referred to in Europe as "Turkish". The Mamluk Sultanate at this point controlled Egypt, the Levant, and the Red Sea spice trade, and presumably imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia along the traditionally spice-trading routes.

So roughly by 1500, guinea fowl are an occasional exotic pet, called poule d'Inde, gelline d'Inde or galine de Turquie at least in France and we can hypothesize probably also in England, and so named because they came from Ethiopia ('India' in the 15th century could mean Ethiopia as well as India) and were imported to Europe from Alexandria run by the Mamluk Turks.

By 1500 or shortly later, however, the trade in spices and exotic animals through the Mamluks and the Levant was vastly disrupted by the Portuguese. The world emporium for spices at this time was the city of Calicut in Kerala, India, where black pepper from the hills of south India, and spices from the Spice Islands were sold to Muslim traders who shipped them to the Levant via Yemen or Hormuz. In an attempt to break the Ottoman and Venetian monopolies on this trade, Portugese mariners, starting with Vasco da Gama in 1497, sailed around Africa to reach Calicut directly by sea. On the way, they established colonies in the Cape Verde Islands and down the coast of west Africa, a region they called Guinea, slave-raiding and trading for ivory, gold, and, in the process, guinea fowl. Reaching Calicut in 1502, they quickly began to import spices as well.

Image of Calicut, India from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's atlas Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

From the Spanish, the Portugese also acquired turkey at this time, along with other New World products like corn and chili pepper. The Spanish origin is clear in the name they used for turkeys, `galinha do Peru', 'Peruvian chicken'. At that time the Virreinato del Perú (the Viceroyalty of Peru) was the name for the entire Spanish Empire in South America, including modern-day Peru, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. The Portugese most likely got turkey and corn from the mid-Atlantic trade islands (the Canary or Cape Verde islands) where ships stopped to provision between the Americas, Africa, and Europe; other New World products, for example pototoes, were known to have first reached Europe in this way from the Canaries rather than directly from the Americas.  

The trading capital of northern Europe at this time was Antwerp, a bustling commerical metropolis where Germans were bringing their copper and silver products, the English were bringing cloth. The Portuguese built factories (warehouses) and filled them with products from their three colonial territories: spices and textiles from Calicut, ivory, gold, feathers, and Guinea fowl from West Africa (Guinea), and turkey and corn from the Americas (still called "the Indies" at this point). Thus by 1550 both turkeys and guinea fowl were being brought into central and northern Europe by Portuguese traders. Here's one of the earliest European drawings of turkeys, from French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1555:

The two birds were immediately confused, in Antwerp and throughout Europe. The English word "turkey cock" or "cocks of Inde", and the French word "poules d'Inde" were used sometimes for turkeys, sometimes for guinea fowl, for the next hundred years. Even Shakespeare sometimes got it wrong, at least once using "turkey" (1 Henry IV II.1) when he meant guinea hen. Flemish texts from 1555 cited by the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT), show that the Dutch had the same confusions, as did the Portuguese themselves; the word for turkey, galinhas do Peru ("Peru chickens") was used to describe the guinea fowl that the Portugese Jesuits saw in Ethiopia. Conrad Gesner, the Swiss naturalist whose Historiae animalium was the most encyclopedia zoological description of animals of its time, confused the turkey and the guinea fowl in his bird descriptions in 1555.

The confusion is understandable. Even modern guinea-fowl handbooks point out that guinea fowl are confusable "at first glance" with small modern hen turkeys, sharing "the bald head and dark plumage with white bars and dots". Turkeys were much smaller in the sixteenth century than they are now, and the different subspecies of guinea fowl coming from different parts of Africa likely added to the confusion. And the two birds may very well have arrived on the same Portugese ships.

Another reason for the confusion was the secretive nature of the Portugese government at the time. Unlike the Spanish, who allowed Columbus to publicize his discoveries, the Portuguese government would allow nothing to be published about its discoveries; producing a map of exploration was illegal. Perhaps related to this, or perhaps as an early attempt at branding, the word "Calicut" with its images of exotic India was used to describe many of the objects the Portuguese brought. In his diary of his trip to Antwerp, the German artist Albrecht Dürer describes "Calicut feathers", "weapons from Calicut", and "two ivory salt-cellars from Calicut", although some of these are clearly from West Africa rather than India.

In summary, the turkey acquired its name through a confusion with the guinea fowl. Guinea fowl were re-introduced into Europe from Ethiopia through Mamluk Egypt, and one of their names was "turkey cock" or "poule d'Inde" in various languages as a result. Turkeys arrived slightly later, and were confused with guinea fowl because of their physical similarity, because they were brought to Europe on the same Portuguese ships, because of the Portuguese traders branding everything as an Indian or "Calicut" product, and perhaps because of Portuguese paranoia about keeping secret the details of their overseas discoveries. The confusion is at the root of the names for the turkey in English, French, Dutch, Levantine Arabic, while other names involving India (e.g., in Russian, Polish, Turkish) date from later reference to the Americas as the West Indies.

Another lesson from turkey names is the massive variation we see in each language. In German alone, Weitzenböck's 1936 survey of turkey names included Truthahn, Puter, Indianisch, Janisch, Bubelhahn, Kollerhahn, Kurrhahn, Welscher Guli, Pokal, Grutte and Schruthahn, among many others. There's a folk-theory that foods (or any object) have one 'real' name, but the more common situation is vast variation in naming, particularly in the early stages of borrowing. We can see this now in English with my favorite vegetable, the recent immigrant ipomoea aquatica, which is called in local supermarkets water spinach, chinese spinach, water convolvulus, swamp cabbage, ong choi, kangkong, rau muông, and morning glory vegetable. I. aquatica is so new that we don't yet know what the final English name will be, but even the names of completely nativized foods, like pop, soda, and coke, vary by region in the United States:

Andrew Smith's The Turkey, and A. W. Schorger's The Wild Turkey are both excellent books on the turkey if you want to read more.

But first I want to conclude by considering travel in a different direction; the journey of the turkey and the guinea fowl west to the United States at the start of the 17th century. The guinea fowl's trip was a by-product of the horrific slave trade, which began in the 1440s as the Portuguese created slave-trading posts along the coast of West Africa to staff their sugar plantations in Madeira and then in the New World. As slavery expanded to the Americas, slaving ships included flocks of guinea fowl as provisions. They brought guinea fowl to the Cape Verde islands and then to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola very early, certainly by 1549. In what became the United States, slaves raised guinea fowl on small plots of land, and guinea fowl is still an important species raised by African Americans in the southern United States (and in Brazil, guinea fowl play a liturgical role in African-origin religions like candomblé). The shipping of guinea fowls continued at least into the 1700s, when the presence of guinea fowl on Bristol slave ships is commented on in England.

The late African-American chef and food writer Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of freed slaves, talks about guinea fowl as one of the important foods she grew up with in Freetown, Virginia. In her essay What is Southern? in Gourmet she said:
Southern is a guinea hen, a bird of African origin. They live in trees around the house and make a big noise if strangers come around. Like any game bird, they have to be aged before cooking. They have a delicious flavor and are best when cooked in a clay pot with butter, herbs, onions, and mushrooms.
Archaeologist Anne E. Yentsch found early archeological evidence for this African-American tradition of using clay pots, and argues that it comes from Mandinka traditions of stewing guinea fowl in earthenware pots. It's even quite possible that the fried chicken traditions of our South derive from West African fried guinea fowl cooking methods.

Turkey also made the journey back to the United States, The turkey in England was very popular by the 1560s and was a standard roasting bird for Christmas and other feasts by 1573, when a poem celebrated:

Christmas husbandlie fare... pies of the best, ... and turkey well drest

The English colonists brought domestic turkeys to Jamestown in 1607. In 1612, Captain John Smith talks of Virginia having "wilde Turkies as bigge as our tame". Domestic turkeys were also shipped from England to the Massachusetts Bay colony from England in 1629, where colony members compared the wild turkey to "our English Turky". Thus even if the mythical Pilgram Thanksgiving had actually happened, it would certainly have been following a fine English tradition of roast turkey celebrations.

In other words, both the Africans and the English managed, despite the horrors of slavery and the terrible hardship of exile, to bring the food of their homelands to help create the cuisine of our new country. That's another beautiful myth about America, one that I still cling to: that we've created something truly extraordinary in our stone-soup America by throwing into the pot, each of us, ingredients from the fiercely-preserved traditions that we each brought from wherever we came from to make this place home.

Well, back to the kitchen. This year, we're making my mom's apricot strudel and Janet's mom's sticky-rice stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.