Thanksgiving Day is around the corner and as a Turkish American I am looking forward for this Thursday, when all of our family members will gather around the dinner table and start eating the big bird with all the fixings. As it has been our tradition, we will have the dinner real late in the afternoon, because throughout the day I will be serving 'n my restaurant some sixteen hundred customers about forty plus turkeys with all the dressings, cranberries and pumpkin pies; all they can eat .
Since I always have to work in the restaurant* on Thanksgiving Day, our family dinner is held in our house in the late afternoon. My two brothers and their families who live in other cities have been with us on few Thanksgiving days in the past. Our two daughters and their families including our grand daughter and my wife’s family will join us this year. I will miss my mother and father who were with us on so many thanksgiving days but are no longer with us. This is the first thanksgiving without my mother and the fourth without my father.
I came to the United States in 1972 for my graduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University. I still remember when students asked me at the bar where I was from and I answered “Turkey”, often times I was ridiculed with somebody making the big bird’s sound. I am sure my two daughters who were born and raised here had their share of “gobble, gobble” in the school. Whether it was ignorance or sarcasm by adults or lack of knowledge by children, it always resulted in hurt feelings by the recipient of such jokes.
So then one should ask, how come the thanksgiving bird, which is so native and authentic American as the apple pie and according to one of its founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, more appropriate as the national bird of America than the eagle, is named after my home country?
The answer is quite simple. When Christopher Columbus sailed to America, thinking that he was reaching India and instead reached Americas and met the native people of the continent, who were going to be called “Indians” and later “American Indians” or “Native Americans”, he was disappointed to find any gold in this land, but stumbled upon maize and tobacco and a wild bird which was called “huexolati “ by the natives and all of these he took back home to Spain. Spain was in war with many at the time, had exiled the Muslims and Jews to North Africa and her ports were subsequently closed to all neighboring nations in Europe including their biggest enemy England. The Ottoman empire at the height of its power and the Sultan being the good Samaritan and having respect for other religions gave safe heaven to the Spanish Jews and continued trade relations with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. That is when how all the seeds, corn and birds were headed first from America to Spain and then to Turkey to the hands of the Ottoman farmer.
The Turkish farmer was already familiar with a similar bird, the Guinea fowl, which was imported from North Africa, was raised in the farms of Anatolia and then exported to England. These new birds coming from the new continent however were much bigger in size, attractive in looks with big and shiny feathers and within two decades the Turkish farmers, with advanced seeding and cultivation techniques started exporting not only the “Turkish Corn “(maize), and the “Turkish Tobacco”, but also the Turkish bird to England, where they all were initially treated as novelty items by the rich. Any item imported from the Orient to the West during these times, were treated with high respect. If it came from Turkey, sometimes the word “Turkey“ was attached to the goods to give them a higher value, whether they came from there or not, like the Turkish Carpets. No wonder then when the English Scientist Thomas Harriott who landed in America in 1586, saw some huexelotti on the Roanoke Island of North Carolina resembling the Turkish bird, called them Turkie cockes and Turkie Hennes in his catalogue of flora and fauna. ** The name stuck and later was shortened simply to Turkie or Turkey.
The Turks call their country: “Türkiye”, the Germans: “Türkei” and the French: “Turqie”. But do you know what the Turks call the big bird? They call it “Hindi” or from India. In other words, if one thinks like Christopher Columbus thought once, the Turks call the bird India which really was America. With straight logic, do the Turks call the bird America ?
To add more to the confusion; there are theories why the native Americans and the Native Anatolian people have so much in common: the physical appearance, vocabulary, and handy crafts. According to the theory, when it all started, Alaska was connected to Asia where the Bering channel is today and while some natives went to the American continent, others went to Central Asia and then immigrated to Anatolia what we know as Türkiye today. May be the word for the color “Turquoise “was also derived from the same Turkic origin, which is one of the favorite colors of Native Americans and the Turkish people in their jewelry, arts and crafts.
And finally, when do the Turks eat Turkey? While the big bird is the main entree at the Thanksgiving dinner table here in November, it is traditionally a big seller during New Year's Eve in Türkiye.
We wish all of our friends and family a Happy Thanksgiving.