Country of Origin and the International Turkey Trade or “Is that Turkey Kosher?”

by Harlan Cohen

Many of you have probably already seen the fascinating story of how a North American Bird got the name of a European/Asian country. According to at least one explanation, the bird of the genus Meleagris that many of us will eat today first found its way to England, not via New World explorers and colonists but via Turkish traders who had previously acquired the bird from the highly secretive Spanish. “Turkey coq” was how the English came to know to the new poultry.

But the confusion over the bird’s country of origin extended beyond that and had real legal implications. In other parts of the Old World, the new birds were believed to be from India, not Turkey, a misconception that lives on in the Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and even Turkish words for the bird, which translate roughly as “Indian bird” or “Indian chicken.” This may have been because arriving from Turkish traders they were assumed to come from the East and India was a common shorthand, because of confusion caused by Columbus’ description of his discoveries as the Indies, or because of confusion with other birds also arriving in Europe at the same time, some of which might have actually been from India.

Proper labeling had important legal implications, at least within Jewish law. With all the new foods from Asia, Africa, and the Americas appearing at market, Rabbis needed to quickly figure out which were kosher. The new birds arriving in Europe posed a particular problem because the Bible lists both kosher birds (e.g., Chicken) and non-kosher birds (e.g., Vultures); a bird unknown in ancient times would have been on neither list. Although there are complicated alternative tests (if you really want to know, see here and here), a key, possibly dispositive question in determining the bird’s status is whether there is a tradition within the Jewish community of accepting the bird as kosher. Essentially, the rules include a “safe harbor” for animals already vetted by the authorities (the rabbis) of the place of origin. Here’s where getting the country of origin right matters: If the bird was from North America, there would have been no tradition regarding it. There were, however, longstanding Jewish communities in India, and at least some early legal opinions, confused about the bird’s identity, held the birds to be kosher in reliance on the reported Indian Jewish traditions.

Eventually, the confusion dissipated, and today, the issue is generally settled. By now longstanding tradition, many American Jews will eat Turkey this Thursday night.

Next up in mislabeled fowl and Jewish law, Russo-American Relations and the Muscovy Duck

One Response

  1. Don’t forget French: D’inde = dinde.

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