Turkey made a bid for national fame

It is still a question. If founding father Benjamin Franklin had had his way, would the national symbol of the United States have been the turkey and not the eagle?

In fact, the turkey was very common in the woods of nearly all the early colonies. Flocks of the birds had become popular in Europe, first in Spain and then in England, as early as 50 years before the Jamestown settlement of 1607. But the wild bird is native to North America. In fact, when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century they found the Aztecs already had domesticated it.

Historically, by the time of United States’ independence, the Founding Fathers were seeking emblems for the new nation, such as a flag. Why not a bird as a national symbol?

The story of Franklin and the bird may be an engaging myth and almost as interesting as the story of turkey itself. One cannot think these days of Thanksgiving without the turkey. A recent national survey shows that about 88 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving — either as a main dish, or leftovers for sandwiches, soup or turkey pot pies.

Today, Virginia raises 15 million pounds of turkey each year and ranks among the top six turkey producing states. Nationally, after World War II, the turkey became part of the holiday meals when the poultry industry developed and marketed larger hybrid turkeys.

Wild turkeys have roamed the woods and fields of Virginia for centuries and they became a food staple for the early 17th-century colonists. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wild turkeys were “hunted professionally and sold at markets to feed the growing population in larger towns and cities,” according to Gary Norman, game bird biologist.

The wild turkey population, however, became so depleted that the General Assembly in 1912 passed legislation prohibiting the open market sale of wild turkey. Ultimately a hunting bag limit on the birds was declared. Projects were initiated to revive the wild turkey population, and most failed.

Eventually, it was decided that wild turkeys could be trapped and transferred to areas with suitable habitats, primarily in Virginia’s southwest and Tidewater regions. Now wild turkeys are found all over the Commonwealth. A few flocks of wild turkeys have been seen in recent years in James City and York counties.

It was President Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday with the festivities to be held annually on the final Thursday of November. It was later moved to the fourth Thursday of the month.

Male turkeys are called “Tom.” Why? Legend has it that when Franklin lobbied for the turkey as a national symbol, Thomas Jefferson was opposed to it. It is said that Franklin talked of the “Tom” Turkey to spite Jefferson.

Franklin wrote his daughter in a 1784 letter that the turkey, as a national symbol, was better than an eagle, which was “a Bird of bad moral character … a rank Coward … [and] is generally poor and often very lousy.”

On the other hand he wrote, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…. He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Franklin was obviously defending the honor of the turkey, but was he really proposing that it become a national bird?

Only Franklin knows fur sure, but his alleged feelings for the turkey were boosted when, in the 1969 Broadway musical “1776,” the character proclaimed, “The Turkey is a truly noble bird.” Those words suddenly became Franklin’s exact words and have lived in legend ever since.

Turkey fact

Probably the most famous turkey recipe is the large Virginia Stuffed Turkey Leg that appeared on Julia Child’s television cooking program on June 11, 1992.

During the series “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs,” nationally recognized Chef Jimmy Sneed appeared with Child cooking roasted turkey legs stuffed with mushrooms and ham, grits, homemade saffron pasta and a seasoned coleslaw. At that time Sneed was part owner of a restaurant, Windows on Urbanna Creek, in Urbanna, Virginia. He later opened a restaurant in Richmond.

Copyright © 2018, Williamsburg Magazine
34°