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Where Did We Get "Turkey"? By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 28, 2003


WE LOVE TO PUT TURKEY INTO OUR MOUTHS each Thanksgiving. But why do we find this odd word “turkey” in our mouths, in our vocabulary? Finding this answer brings us to a smorgasbord of history, politics and culture that gives added savor to most of the foods of this Thursday’s feast.

“About 1530, a new dish began to be put on English tables,” writes one cultural historian, “a fowl a little larger than the traditional goose, but with a lot more meat and a refreshingly new taste.

“This bird,” the historian continues, “had been brought to England by merchants trading out of that area of the eastern Mediterranean called the Levant but whom the English called ‘Turkey merchants’ because that whole area was then part of the Turkish empire. The new bird was therefore called a ‘Turkey bird’ or ‘Turkey cock.’”


The strutting and aggressive bird quickly became so familiar that decades later the Old Globe Theatre audience for William Shakespeare’s new play “Twelfth Night” could easily digest two characters’ dialogue about a third, Malvolio:


            SIR TOBY BELCH:  Here’s an overwheening rogue!

            FABIAN:  O, peace! Contemplation make a rare turkey-cock of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes!


Was this the newly-discovered wild turkey from the New World? Or, more likely, was it the West African guinea-fowl, supplied by both Turkey-merchants and Portuguese traders, that was also called the “Turkey-bird?” 


Either way, the name of the Turkish empire got attached to both.  (Other scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign speculate that our traditional Thanksgiving bird might also have been named for the sound it makes – “Turk, Turk, Turk.”  Their other potential origins for the name are that one Native American name for the bird was “firkee,” or that Columbus, believing he was in the Indies, not only called the locals “Indians” but also called these birds what the people of India called their peacocks, “Tuka.”)


We now know, thanks to scientists, that the Mayflower Pilgrims were not the only undocumented immigrants at that first Thanksgiving. The Native American tribe that helped them survive had also come from thousands of miles away in Asia, trekking across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into North America perhaps 12,000 years earlier.


And even the foods at that first Thanksgiving table were immigrants. The turkeys that might have on that first Thanksgiving dinner table originated in Mexico, then spread by migration, both natural and entrepreneurial. (The classic Mexican national dish Mole is made with turkey, chocolate, chili peppers and more.)


Scientists have confirmed by DNA tracing that the corn maize at that first Thanksgiving was not native to New England. It reached that banquet via the original North American Free Trade Association, passed from tribe to tribe along a trade route from its land of origin, central Mexico.


The pumpkin squash (from the Massachuset Indian name askootasquash) had migrated to their table and into our Thanksgiving pumpkin pies today from lands even more distant. Trade among Indians had brought its seeds from the gourd’s homeland in southern Mexico and Central America.


The first great scientist to make such discoveries came from the Soviet Union. During the 1920s and 1930s Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world gathering plant and seed samples. He created the world’s first giant "Seed Bank," a Noah’s Ark of Earth’s green genes. (The U.S. now has its own, the biggest of them in Ft. Collins, Colorado.)


Vavilov knew that immigrants had carried seeds with them throughout the world. But his pioneering research found that virtually all the crops on which human survival depends came from only 12 regions, making up only about 1/40 of our planet’s land area.


These fertile motherlands of our food crops are vitally important because our food production depends on "hybridization." To restore vigor and productivity to our crops, we must from time to time make new hybrids by cross-breeding our domesticated plants with the still-wild genes of their relatives. These wild relatives live almost exclusively in the 12 regions of origin that scientists now call "Vavilov Centers."


It is therefore urgently important to know that corn originated in Mexico and pumpkins in Central America. This is where the wild genes needed to revitalize and improve these crops are to be found.


It is likewise vital to know that asparagus, beets, cabbage, lettuce, oats, olives and rhubarb are all rooted, genetically speaking, in lands bordering the Mediterranean.


Alfalfa, rye, lentils, almonds, apricots, apples, pears, pistachios and pomegranates all came from Asia Minor and Afghanistan.


North America is relatively poor in such wild genetic wealth, being the original Eden of only a few crops – pecans, blueberries, Concord grapes, sunflowers, the sunflower tubers we call Jerusalem artichokes and, fittingly for Thanksgiving, cranberries.


Rice, yams, black pepper, eggplants, cucumbers and oranges have as their homeland Burma and India. Soybeans and buckwheat began in China.


The wheat in your dinner rolls this Thanksgiving probably originated in or around Turkey.


Barley and sorghum came originally from Ethiopia, as did all the coffee now grown from Vietnam to Colombia to Brazil.


Coffee reached Europe via the Turks, too. Bags of coffee beans, legend says, were left near the gates of Vienna in 1683 by retreating Ottoman troops after their siege failed to capture the Hapsburg city.  The stimulating Turkish beverage became the rage across the European continent in coffee shops named for the caffeine-laden liquid, Cafes.


England’s American colonies drank tea instead, at least until the 1773 Boston Tea Party. It soon became a political statement that Americans drank coffee instead of the taxed British pick-me-up, and this bean brew remains our national drink. (American revolutionaries also rebelled against England by replacing the British words Inn and Tavern with French nouns from the language of our Gallic allies, Hotel and Restaurant.)


Although it grows vast amounts of non-native coffee to satisfy American consumers, Brazil is the land where two other globetrotting crops, peanuts and pineapples, first took root. Chile is the Vavilov Center for all the world’s strawberries, as is the Peruvian Andes for all tomatoes and potatoes.


In the Andean highlands where for many centuries potatoes were the staple food of the Incas, no potato famine has ever been recorded. The blight that destroyed potato harvests in Ireland during the late 1840s starved more than a million people. They depended on a monoculture, one single susceptible genetic variety of "Virginia" potato captured from the Spanish by English pirates and brought to his Irish plantation by Sir Walter Raleigh.


Then as now, Peru’s native people have never grown monocultures, instead planting their fields with up to 60 different kinds of colors of intermixed potatoes with a rich diversity of disease resistance.


Dr. Vavilov himself would die from a different kind of blight. In the Marxist Soviet Union, socialist dictator Joseph Stalin put all science under the control of megalomaniac Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko regularly punished scientists who did not applaud his harebrained pseudo-scientific theories and ideas. (The late neo-Leninist Stephen Jay Gould includes an essay about Vavilov in his book Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.)


As punishment for his dissent against Lysenko’s dogmas, one of the 20th Century’s greatest scientific pioneers Nikoli Vavilov was thrown into one of Stalin’s prisons. This great researcher whose work helps feed millions today died in that prison during World War II – of starvation.


I often think of Vavilov and Lysenko when I see the Stalinists in control of so many American university campuses today. On these campuses a Lysenko-like conformity is demanded on every topic, from literature to racial preferences to global warming. Those who fail to conform find themselves fired or un-hired or even the targets of violent mob intimidation and attack.


The official Politically Correct line on such campuses is that they accept – nay, impose – "diversity." But in this leftist Orwellian "doublespeak," diversity means a faculty that includes a black Marxist, a Lesbian Marxist, a Latina Marxist, a transgender Marxist, and the like. No genuine intellectual diversity whatsoever is permitted.


Our universities, in other words, have become the equivalent of a mental monoculture. Touch these places with the wrong germ of an idea, and the resulting intellectual blight could murder more millions at the hands of the next Hitler or Stalin.


And as such mass terror killings happen, these brain-dead pseudo-intellectual advocates of ever-bigger government applaud wildly and, as they have done with Saddam Hussein, declare not the mass murderers but the United States to be “the greatest threat to world peace.”


How much better it would be to be nourished by a genuine diversity of ideas, like the cornucopia of foods from around the world that grace our Thanksgiving tables. Our Thanksgiving bounty is the fruits of freedom and voluntary exchange in economics, the term for which is capitalism or free enterprise.


We enjoy more than mere calories each Thanksgiving. In every dish we ask be passed, and in each bite we savor, we feel the nourishing warmth of heritage shared, of human exploration and discovery and courage, of faith sustained. Each bite contains the taste of liberty, America’s native food.  We are what we eat.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.

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