Just what will you be putting on your plate during this holiday season? You probably already know that centuries of selective breeding have produced the creatures we love to feast on, but you might be surprised at how weird the process has been. Here are the 10 most startling origin stories for the animals that most people eat.
Image: Scott Bauer, USDA
Rabbit is not a popular meal, but it's still a recognizable meal. Its lack of popularity is probably why commercial breeders went all-out trying to come up with the perfect all-purpose rabbit breed. If you eat rabbit, wear rabbit, or buy things that are tested on a rabbit, you have made use of the New Zealand White.
And just to confuse us, the New Zealand White rabbit is not from New Zealand. It was bred in America. No one exactly knows how the breed started, but most believe that it must have sprung entirely from the obsessive husbandry of one W.S. Preshaw, a California breeder. He crossed Angora rabbits with White American rabbits, and added in a dash of Flemish Giant. (The Flemish Giant is a famously massive rabbit - the Saint Bernard of rabbits. Unfortunately, a lot of that bulk is bone. Rabbit breeders went looking for less size and more meat.) Because few backyard breeders care to sell to laboratories New Zealand Whites are crossbred with other rabbits to make darker animals. They remain the standard for meat rabbits, though.
How did a bird so associated with America get the name "turkey"? It's a long story. It starts with the Spanish landing in American and hauling back anything they could carry. Wild turkeys were among the spoils taken back from the Americas, and they caught on faster than tobacco. They hit the European continent in 1498 and were in England by the 1540s. The turkey roast was the most popular Christmas dinner in England by the 1570s. (It was made as a roast because the English knew the relatively old birds made flavorful roasts, whereas spring turkeys were served in ways that let their tenderness stand out.)
To English eyes, the American birds resembled a kind of African fowl that had previously been brought to England by Turkish merchants, so they were called Turkey birds. Meanwhile, the merchants thought that turkeys came from India, possibly because Columbus at first believed the Americas were "the Indies." Turkeys became Europeanized, and several local breeds were developed. They traveled back to America with the pilgrims, having been in Europe for 120 years. It's possible that the Pilgrims ate wild turkey on Thanksgiving, or that they ate the tame European turkey, or a crossbreed of the two.
If you're gobbling down a turkey this Christmas, it will probably be a Broad-Breasted White. From the 1700s to the 1900s, the Bronze, or Broad-Breasted Bronze turkey was the favored turkey everywhere. This brown-feathered bird started as a crossbreed between European and wild turkeys. It was bred, over time, to have a larger and larger chest. In the 1930s, when families shrank and when fridges were small, consumers asked for a 8 to 15 pound bird that had light pin feathers so the skin wouldn't look "dirty." By 1951, the Beltsville Small White had become the breed of choice — but then fridges grew and so did the public appetite for breast meat. By 1965, the Broad-Breasted White was the most popular breed, and it has remained so.
And the rumors are true — the Broad-Breasted White cannot breed by itself. It also has trouble standing or walking around. Because it grows so fast, and puts on muscle so quickly, its bones and tendons are usually strained. Even if it weren't slaughtered young, it wouldn't live a long life. In the 1990s, both farmers and zoos began trying to preserve "heritage breeds" of turkey. A heritage turkey is required to be able to breed on its own, take at least 28 weeks to grow, and to have a long life whether it is for slaughter or not. It's probably too late to get one this year, but check out farms in your area if you want to eat a heritage turkey next year.
If you are eating a Christmas ham, it comes from Sus scrofa domesticus, or the domestic pig. That animal, as pink and cute as it might look, is not all that different from Sus scrofa, the wild boar. Boars have thicker skin, bristly hair, a longer snout, and a serious mean streak, but give pigs a couple of generations in the wild, or one wild night with a boar, and they produce offspring that are startlingly like purebred boars.
At the beginning of the last century, there were three generalized kinds of pigs — wild boars, pork pigs, and lard pigs. Wild boars produced lean meat, but meat that still had a good deal of fat. Lard pigs were compact, short-legged, fast-growing domesticated pigs that put on massive amounts of fat which would be used for industrial lubricant and, sometimes, cooking grease. (They went out of fashion when synthetic lubricants replaced industrial-use lard.) Domesticated pigs were leaner than lard pigs, but still fatty and marbled. They were, in the past, a way of turning garbage into food. Families could toss their pig kitchen scraps all year, until the day came when the pig itself went into the kitchen. The copious fat that came off the pig went into baking, or frying other food.
At the beginning of the 1950s, pigs went from turning garbage into food to turning food into garbage. Oils and butter suddenly became plentiful, and people didn't fancy dealing with cupfuls of pork grease every time they cooked. Fat was a waste product, and people didn't want to buy it. Farmers' associations came up with leaner, bigger, more-muscled pigs. That trend has continued.
In some ways, these new pigs are healthier than they used to be. They can run faster and longer, even though they're bigger, because their bulk is muscle. In some ways, though, they're more fragile. A layer of fat is necessary when an animal lives outside. Modern pigs live indoors. Modern pigs also are not as tasty as they used to be. A pig today has even less fat than the "ultra-lean" pig of the 1950s. Farmers went to a lot of trouble to turn pork (the other white meat) into something healthy, only to produce a dry health food that people don't want to eat. This is why a lot of holiday hams today are injected with flavors, or cured, or otherwise processed. Many of the old pig breeds have gone extinct, but there are still heritage breeds. There are also, in many states, huge populations of wild boars that hunters will happily turn into profit, if they can find buyers.
Today, chickens are everywhere, which makes them less festive than some other meats, but who doesn't like a good roast chicken dinner? The chicken gained its ubiquity quickly. It seems every continent that gets a hold of a domestic chicken goes wild for it. The initial credit, though, goes to southeast Asia, which domesticated the red junglefowl, gallus gallus, between seven and ten thousand years ago.
Since then, we have managed to change a few things about the chicken. Most birds only lay during a certain season. In nature, there is a season for hatchlings. On farmyards there is no chick season and no egg season. Selective breeding has mutated the thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor gene in these birds. This mutation allows chickens to breed, and lay, all year long. So now you can eat fresh chicken and eggs during the winter holidays, instead of just in the spring.
Unless you're in a tale by Charles Dickens, you are probably not having goose for Christmas. European geese were derivations of the greylag goose, Asian geese were variations on the swan goose, and most other domesticated geese are crossbreeds of the two.
Geese were once very popular everywhere for the same reason pigs were popular everywhere. Geese are hardy and (primarily) vegetarian. Small farmsteads could set small flocks of geese out among the crops. The geese would snap up weeds, and were big and tough enough to defend themselves against smaller predators. They provided a few eggs, they pulled their weight, and when they matured they made for a delicious, fatty dinner.
Today, though, people want dinner that's less fatty and more timely. For the most part, geese only lay seasonally, and they can take two years to mature. If a goose is, basically, a weed-killer, that extra bit of meat is a welcome bonus. If it's an end product in and of itself, two years is a long wait for very fatty meat.
Sheep don't look like much, but they made an epic five-millennium expansion from the place where they were first domesticated - southwest Asia - to cover pretty much all of Asia, Russia, and Europe. It was not to be their only journey. Like nearly all the animals on this list, when more useful versions came along, people updated their herds. Around four thousand years ago, updated versions started springing up around the world. In this case, the updated version included a new feature — wool.
Many breeds of sheep, now called "primitive breeds," have coarse, dark, and often short hair. Sheep were initially only raised for milk and meat. But longer wool provided material, softer wool was more desirable, and white wool took dye well in an era without bleach. Newer breeds also had fewer horns, and produced hornless females, which made them safer to work with. These new breeds displaced primitive breeds in the farmyard. They didn't displace them in the surrounding countryside. Being not-too-far removed from the wild, many primitive breeds wandered to relatively predator-free areas and survived. Farmers occasionally kept a few primitive breeds around, as an insurance policy in case something happened to their main flock.
Today, as with most rare breeds, there are organizations trying to keep the primitive breed alive. Because they are rare, you'll see these animals in a petting zoo or on a small farm, not on the plate.
Every cow in the world is descended from a herd of eighty cattle. Considering what animals they are descended from, it's a surprise anyone managed to round up eighty. Aurochs used to roam the hills. Two meters tall, with horns the length of a human arm, these were not creatures anyone would want to get too close to. Still, ten and a half thousand years ago, some very brave Iranian decided to get together a herd. Over the next few generations, the herd grew by as little as two animals a year. Now there are billions of cows across the globe, and they hold on to their auroch heritage by killing about twenty-two people in the US alone every year.
If you're eating beef in the United States, you know the name of your dinner's great-great-great . . . . great-grandparents. Black Angus cows are such common beef cattle that their population outstrips that of the seven next most popular beef breeds combined. Supposedly, these cows are crossbreeds between the Texas longhorns and a Scottish breed called Angus cattle.
The Angus breed got its start in 1842, when a breeder, Hugh Watson, entered "Old Jock" in his herd book as animal number one. Watson made sure that Old Jock was a busy bull, and one of the cows he was busy with was Old Granny. Old Granny was calved in 1824, gave birth to 29 healthy calves herself, and lived a fertile life until she was struck by lightning. (Because that is how a legend dies.) The majority of Angus cattle trace their origins to Old Jock and Old Granny. So, if you're sitting down to a steak tonight, you can actually name the DNA you're consuming.
Turkey Image: KenThomas.us
Gallus gallus Image: Lip Kee Yap
Primitive Sheep Breeds: NCBI
Cattle Image: Galerie Bassenge
[Via How an American Bird Got the Name Turkey, The History of the Turkey, Let's Talk Turkey, The Rise and Fall of the Great American Hog, History of Heritage Pigs, How the Chicken Conquered the World, Geese: The Underestimated Species, Revealing the History of Sheep Domestication, Cattle Breeds, New Zealand Rabbits.]