As early as A.D. 600, the people living in the area now known as the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico domesticated turkeys. They were an important source of meat. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both wrote how turkeys were driven into the fields to feast on tobacco hornworms.
After the tobacco harvest concluded, the turkeys would be penned and fattened for the upcoming holiday feasts. Even if you aren’t growing tobacco, turkeys are a great help in controlling nuisance insects. They are especially fond of grasshoppers, flies and other common summer pests.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turkey production became specialized. In 1874, five varieties of “standard” turkeys were named in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black and Slate.
By the 1920s, the Bronze, the largest variety, had garnered the attention of breeders who stressed characteristics that included body size and breast width. By the early 1940s, nearly all varieties in the commercial marketplace had been replaced by the Bronze.
Later, during the 1950s, turkey breeders became more interested on increasing the growth rate in white-feathered birds. The color of the feather dictates the color of the fluid inside a feather, so dark turkeys have dark fluid while white birds have whitish fluid.
During plucking, the tasteless fluid leaks out and stains the skin. Consumers preferred white dressed turkeys because they appeared to be cleaner. By the 1970s, the Large White turkey ruled the marketplace, and confinement rearing had become the accepted norm. These huge, 40- to 65-pound birds cannot breed by themselves, so artificial insemination is used. Today, five companies control more than 50 percent of the market: Jennie-O Foods, Cargill, Butterball Turkey Co., Wampler Foods Inc. and Carolina Turkeys.
Male turkeys are raised exclusively in confinement houses, containing as many as 10,000 birds each. Females are smaller and slower growing and are usually killed at a young age and used as livestock feed. Because of the crowded conditions, commercial birds are frequently fed antibiotics to prevent disease. Territorial toms are also given tranquilizers to keep them from fighting. These birds are fed high levels of protein because they’ve been bred to grow unnaturally fast. And more recently there’s even a “canolaball” turkey that has been injected with fats, stock and flavor enhancers to be self-basting as the meat cooks.
To learn more about the history of the turkey, and how you can avoid an artificial feast, read "Homegrown Turkeys are Terrific" at Mother Earth News.