Turkey: Country or Food? (In Other Words, WTH English?)

I do love some good turkey, and despite all the hoopla about tryptophan it’s probably the carb crash from the rest of the trimmings and your system needing to process the overeating that hits you.  Turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey in whatever form is delicious.  What about the country?  I’ve never been.  I do remember the first time I even knew there was such a country.  It was fourth or fifth grade and we were identifying blobs on a map as a whole class.  The teacher pointed to one blob that none of us knew and this girl, I believe her name was Theresa L., bursted out in a somewhat timid manner, “Turkey?”  The entire class, me included laughed at the ridiculousness of it.  Who names a country “turkey” and why would she think such a place existed?  The teacher came back with a, “no but very close!”  I sat there stunned.  Once again, who names a country after a bird?!  It turns out it’s the other way around.

I’m finally, slowly, making my way through the book A History of Food in 100 Recipes, allowing me to indulge in my combined likes of history and cooking.  I got to the chapter on Turkey Tamales.  Not only can you learn of a history of how tamales were made by the Aztecs of the 15th century as chronicled by Bernardino de Sahagán, which were dramatically more ornate than how we do it today, but you also learn the history of how turkeys got popular in Europe.  As they rose to prominence the people had to give names to these strange birds.  The English ancestors at the time were receiving these birds from breeders in the region of the middle east where Turkey is located, so assumed they came from there originally.  It didn’t take too much of a leap to just call them by the name of the region, and thus begat the name “turkey” for these birds.  I wonder if Baked Alaska has a similar naming story? 😀

English is certainly full of uniquely peculiar word choices.  I just yesterday ran across a book on preserving foods called, “You Can Can.”  You would also probably try to avoid “patronizing a restaurant where the staff talk to you in a patronizing manner.”  If you were to take up the sport of archery you may even be impressed by a master bow maker to the point where you would “Bow to the man who can make a bow from the bough of even the poorest tree specimen.”  It’s too easy to beat up on English, so this native English speaker will stop.  However it turns out this phenomena of naming this New World creature after it’s country of origin took all of Europe by storm.

While the English thought it original came from Turkey, the Dutch, Danes, Germans and French thought they were originally from India.  Hence the French called it dinede, from coq d’Inde (cock of India).  The Danes called it kalkun after the Indian port of Calcuta.  The closest language to calling it what the Aztecs at the time called it is actually Spanish.  The huexolotl of Aztec has been transformed into one of the Spanish words for turkey, guajolote.  I wonder what other food names have similar stories behind their naming (and no, I don’t mean “Greek” yogurt)?

For more great food history stories and recipes, I highly recommend the book!



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