Your Thanksgiving turkey isn’t as all-American as you might think

The Thanksgiving turkey is a classic American immigrant story.
The Thanksgiving turkey is a classic American immigrant story.
Image: AP Photo/Collin Binkley
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The centerpiece of nearly every Thanksgiving table in the US is an immigrant.

The turkey might be indigenous to the Americas, but it was only after the bird was shipped to Europe that it became the flightless creature we eat today. According to US Department of Agriculture scientist Julie Long, wild turkeys were first domesticated around 800 BCE by the Mayans in what is present-day Mexico. Hundreds of years later, when Spanish conquistadors set foot in the New World around 1500 CE, they came across the birds and were enthralled by them.

“They thought ‘Oh my God, we need these,’ and they took the birds back to Europe,” Long says. At the time, Europeans were accustomed to eating other birds, like peacocks and storks. The turkeys were slightly bigger and had a less gamey taste.

But—especially by today’s standards—they were still relatively scrawny. So continental farmers bred them to carry more meat. The meatier birds still weren’t nearly as heavy as what people are accustomed to today, but for their time, it was a big enough difference that turkey meat became a popular source of poultry in several European countries. And when European colonists got in boats to cross the Atlantic Ocean once more, headed for cities such as Jamestown, they brought turkeys on board with them.

“So that’s how the birds got here,” Long explains, “but they were small birds.”

Up until the mid-1940s, most turkeys eaten in the US were the product of backyard flocks. But after World War II, the US Department of Agriculture began breeding a small, white-feathered turkey known as a “broad-breasted white”—a cross of about six different breeds—that was ideal for families who had in-house roasters. Those birds only grew to about 20 pounds, much smaller than the average 31-pound birds on the market today.

The tremendous growth in US turkey size that happened in the next few decades came thanks to commercial breeding companies, who in the 1960s began breeding the birds to be humongous. In fact, the birds grew to be so big they could no longer mate on their own, driving the need for a large-scale poultry-farming system in which the birds would be artificially inseminated by farm workers.

The modern-day birds that most Americans will buy, dress, roast, and carve up are all related to a handful of elite turkey lines specially created by breeders. The exact breeder information is a closely-guarded industry secret, but make no mistake: they are almost nothing like the turkeys that walked around with the Mayans, or even the smaller breeds developed by the USDA.

As Long puts it: “These elite lines are the Lamborghinis.”