Thanks given for Wild Turkey

Christmas has the sound of carols while July Fourth the sight of fireworks, but only one American holiday has an aroma. A breeze of savory turkey from the kitchen is the essence of Thanksgiving. How it came to be associated is something of a mystery, but it’s a nice compensation for losing the vote to bald eagles when America chose its national bird.

wild turkeyWe can’t be sure if they were on the menu at the very first Thanksgiving in the 1600s. Even the date and place of that celebration is contested. According to a tale often told, Thanksgiving began when persecuted Puritans arriving in God’s land from England celebrated their first harvest with new American Indian friends in Massachusetts. It is a story that nicely chimes with the proud national history we like to tell children.

But some twenty miles up the James River in Virginia, at the Berkeley Plantation (formerly Berkeley Hundred), a plaque commemorates a thanksgiving service in December 1619, a full year before the first Pilgrim Father stepped off the Mayflower.

Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.

The Berkeley bunch of rugged pioneers was more in tune with profit than piety, and they even had an entrepreneurial clergyman. According to legend, their Episcopal priest distilled the first bourbon whiskey from Indian corn in 1621—though the claim attracts a spirited rebuff from patriotic Kentuckians. But there can be no doubt that the colonists needed southern comfort, because the following year they were raided by Indians and the survivors had to be evacuated to the fort at Jamestown. Thanksgiving was suspended at Berkeley for some years, leaving the northern upstarts with the reputation of an honored meal in perpetuity.

The colonists would say that Thanksgiving turkeys today are a pale, vast, and grotesque transmogrification of their wild relatives that fatten naturally on mast in the fall woods. Wild turkey was daily fare for them, much as rabbit was for their relatives in England. I imagine children complaining when mothers served it for the umpteenth time. It requires rarity and high market price for us to value delicacies. Over-hunting brought a turnabout, although in the past century wild turkeys have become common again through conservation efforts and reintroduction to where they had been extirpated.

We see them rustling through leaf litter in woods, gleaning fields, and even waddling along roadsides, with their disproportionately tiny heads bobbing constantly. If you come within a couple of hundred feet of them, you may be surprised how shy they are and the speed with which they vanish in a racket of whirring feathers. Remember, they are flying carcasses with heavy payloads of breast meat.

They know when it is hunting season, and gather in small parties of adults and jakes because the more eyes the better. There were thirteen in our woods last week, but if they had bigger brains they would know it’s an unlucky number.

A Merry Thanksgiving to all my American readers.

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By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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