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An All American Bird: Talking Turkey With Kyle Cherek


It’s the big day. Some of us have been up since dawn preparing food for our Thanksgiving tables, while others made reservations at a fine local establishment weeks ago and enjoyed a leisurely morning.

But no matter where you are on the Thanksgiving meal prep spectrum, it’s likely you will enjoy the star of the show in some form. Yes, the turkey. All hail the turkey.

Food historian and Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek says one of the reasons Thanksgiving is such an American holiday is that the turkey is truly an American bird.

"When Columbus first came here and then the Spaniards showed up, they encountered the only two domesticated animals that the Maya and Inca had," Cherek says, "the llama and the turkey." (We don't know about you, but we're thankful we're not sitting down to a llama dinner today.)

Turkeys returned to Europe with Columbus and in a very short time were being farmed in Spain, replacing other game fowl fairly quickly according to Cherek. However, the image of Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing turkey during the settlers' first winter here is not true. The native peoples of what became Massachusetts didn't particularly like the taste of the wild turkeys that lived in the forests there, so they weren't a dietary staple.

Thanksgiving as we know it today really started in the second half of the 19th century as a way to honor the Civil War dead. It took a while to catch on as a national holiday, but Cherek is very glad it did.

"I think it's really important to celebrate being American today and being all together around one inclusive table," he says. "The romanticism we often put on this holiday is not so accurate. However the truth - that we are united by food - has always, always, and forever will be, accurate."

Wishing you and yours a very festive day from all of us at Lake Effect.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.