A Brief History of the American Turkey

Today's meat-bound, stationary critter is nothing like the wild, athletic American turkey of yore.

American turkey

Prior to the development of domesticated breeds, the American turkey was an athletic bird and a good flier.

ILLUSTRATION: PATRIMONIO DESIGNS/FOTOLIA

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Today's domestic turkey is a direct descendent of the wild American turkey that indigenous tribes found in good abundance over a broad range of habitat in North America. Among the Native Americans who at least partially domesticated the wild turkey was the Aztec tribe of southcentral Mexico. I say "partially" because the Aztecs did little in the way of selective breeding; they simply corralled some wild turkeys, clipped their wings, and raised some birds for the stew pot.

When the Spanish conquistadores took over the Aztec nation, they brought some of these semi-wild turkeys back to Spain. These birds were bred and disseminated, and as domesticated turkeys, their descendants gradually populated other areas of Europe. As settlers from northern Europe began to homestead America, they brought their domestic turkeys with them, thus completing an odd circle of turkey breeding and dispersal. Until the twentieth century; however, these domestic birds were little different in conformation from the wild turkeys that were already here (and which, by 1900, had been hunted close to extinction).

A key figure in the development of the modern big-bodied domestic bird was an Englishman named Jesse Throstle. He came to Canada in the 1930s and, through selective breeding, developed a stocky wide bodied bird with lots of breast and leg muscle in relation to bone size. Modern commercial breeders have further developed this trend. Where the wild turkey and the early domestic variety were athletes and good flyers, the modern meat bird is cumbersome and can scarcely get off the ground. But he has a remarkable ability to convert feed into muscle and protein and can yield a sizable feast in a matter of months.

All the commercial strains of turkeys can produce either a savory feast or a very inferior quality of meat, depending almost entirely on what they eat and how they are housed and raised. Sadly, most American consumers have never eaten a truly good turkey. To explain why this is so, I need to take you to the supermarket and borrow some information from a public personality named Jim Hightower.

Yes, this is the same Jim Hightower who is currently a popular radio talk show host. What does this media gadfly know about turkeys? Well, for most of his career, Hightower's profession was agricultural economics. He was the Texas commissioner of agriculture for two terms, and he has written books and articles exposing some of the unsavory practices of agribusiness.

In a book published last year, There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos (HarperCollins), Hightower takes on the factory farming of turkeys. The modern supermarket turkey, Hightower reports, is derived almost entirely from huge breeding flocks of broad-breasted white birds owned by a handful of mega corporations, including ConAgra Inc., producers of the Butterball variety. The birds are so breast-heavy, and are so closely confined, that they are unable to breed and are barely able to walk. The breeding is accomplished by artificial insemination. Walking for these birds is superfluous; they don't need to walk. They just eat while squatting, day and night, bunched wing tip to wing tip, in front of food bunkers in assembly-line fashion. The close confines of such "farming" produce an environment ripe for disease and infection. As Hightower reports, "Factory-produced animals now receive an average of about 30 times more antibiotics than people do. But since residues of these drugs can end up in the meat, you can end up as doctored as the turkey, getting an unexpected dose of antibiotic with every bite of Butterball you eat."

As bad, or worse, Hightower notes, "The poor bird is injected after slaughter with vegetable oil, water, salt, emulsifiers (mono- and diglycerides), sodium phosphate, annoto color, and artificial flavors."