Thanksgiving - All Things Ottoman

As most people know, the domesticated turkey that Americans eat for Thanksgiving descends from the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, native to America. The Spaniards fancied the turkey when they invaded Mexico where turkey was indigenous, and then introduced the bird to Europe when they returned in the early 1500's. However, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, turkeys were thought by northern Europeans to be a product of Turkey.

Europeans also for a time called turkeys "India fowl", then confused the turkey with "Guinea fowl" and gave turkeys the same Latin genus name: "Maleagris". The species name that they settled on, "gallopavo" combines the Latin for rooster and for peacock. From these confusing origins turkeys have long struggled with their identity. First they were put in their own family, Meleagrididae; but now scientists consider turkeys to be part of the pheasant family, Phasianidae, in the subfamily Mealeagidinae.

In 1934, Dr. Frank Thone, a botanist and journalist for Science News Letter, wrote that other native American plants, tobacco, corn, and pumpkin, were also assumed by Europeans to be products of Turkey. 1

The 1542 botany text by Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarri insines, described corn and pumpkin as Turkish. The Yale medical library has scanned the plates of the wood cuts from Fuch's 1543 German translation of De historia stirpium, called New Kreuterbuch. As Thone describes, the plates for pumpkin and corn, refer to the vegetables as "Turkish cucumber", and and "Turkish corn".

Thone translated Fuchs explanation of "Turkish corn" history: "The plant here considered has been brought to us only recently from Turkey, Asia and Greece... thus far it has no Latin name other than Turcico frumentum. Corn now, is of course known as Zea mays. Thone wrote in 1934 that turkey still retained its "red fez" misnomer, while corn, tobacco, and pumpkin had been popularly reconnected to their proper American origins.

Digesting that, you can sit back in your stretchy pants and put your feet up on the ottoman...


1Frank Thone wrote "thousands" (according to his obituary) of articles for Science News Letters, now Science News, which was started in 1921 as a part of the Science Service. He was one of the reporters who covered the Scopes trial in 1925 and sought to use the trial to educate the public about evolution.

(corrected link 11/24/07)

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