Food,  Culture,  Hunting

On Being a Turkey: A Deep Dive into the Bird’s Southern Roots

By Robbie Perdue

Hunting turkey is a time-honored tradition in the American South, and at the center of every Thanksgiving table is that iconic bird. While most of us are familiar with the hunting season and the holiday, its rich history and deep ties to the South often go unnoticed. In this article, we will explore the turkey’s southern roots, from its origins to its place in southern culture and cuisine.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, wild turkeys roamed the forests of what is now the southern United States. Native American tribes, including the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole, revered the turkey for its meat, feathers, and symbolic value. The bird played a significant role in ceremonial rituals and was often associated with abundance and fertility.

When Europeans arrived in the South, they encountered a new and diverse array of flora and fauna, including the wild turkey. They quickly recognized the bird’s value and revered  it’s taste. Spanish explorers, such as Hernando de Soto, commonly referred to the bird as “gallina de Indias,” meaning “Indian hen.”

As settlers began to establish communities, they sought to replicate the tastes by domesticating turkeys.  However, while these European’s struggled to adapt to the farming of the new fowl, it was the wild turkeys that flourished, symbolizing the indomitable spirit of the southern region.

A Pair of Toms in full strut

Throughout history, the turkey has played a vital role in southern culture. From folklore and art to literature and music, the bird has left an indelible mark on the region’s heritage.

One of the most well-known cultural references to the turkey in the South can be found in the works of William Faulkner. In his novel “Light in August,” Faulkner uses the imagery of a turkey to symbolize the struggles of the southern community. He portrays the turkey as a misunderstood and maligned creature, much like the people of the South during the upheaval of the post-Civil War era.

Another example is the folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” which originated in the South during the 19th century. This lively tune, often associated with square dancing and barn dances, became a staple of southern music and remains popular to this day.

In the South, food is a language of love and tradition. The turkey has become an integral part of southern cuisine, with various preparation methods and regional specialties.

One iconic southern dish that features turkey is the Cajun-style turducken. This culinary masterpiece consists of a deboned turkey stuffed with a deboned duck, which is then stuffed with a deboned chicken. The layers of different meats are separated by flavorful stuffing, creating a savory and indulgent centerpiece for any Southern feast.

In addition to the turducken, many southern families have their own unique methods of preparing turkey. Whether it’s slow-smoked on a barbecue pit or roasted with a secret blend of spices, the turkey takes on the flavors of the region, reflecting the diverse culinary traditions found throughout the South.

Thanksgiving in the South is not just a holiday; it’s a cherished tradition that brings communities together. From large family gatherings to community-wide feasts, the turkey is a symbol of unity and celebration.

A close up shot of that beautiful head

Throughout the South, turkey shoots are a popular community event. These competitions involve shooting at targets with shotguns, with the main prize being a live turkey, or more likely a frozen turkey in modern times. Dating back to the 18th century, turkey shoots have become a social gathering where neighbors and friends come together to showcase their marksmanship skills and enjoy each other’s company.

Another tradition during Thanksgiving is the pardoning of a turkey. Many cities and towns in the South hold ceremonies where a specially selected turkey is “pardoned” by the mayor or a local dignitary. The pardoned turkey is then spared from becoming the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal and instead given a new home on a farm or sanctuary. 

In conclusion, the turkey’s southern roots run deep, intertwined with the history, culture, and cuisine of the American South. This noble bird represents the resilience and spirit of the region, bringing people together in celebration and creating lasting traditions. So, as you gather around the Thanksgiving table this year, take a moment to appreciate the turkey’s southern heritage and the role it plays in our southern way of life.


is a native North Carolinian who enjoys cooking, butchery, and is passionate about all things BBQ. He straddles two worlds as an IT professional and a farmer who loves heritage livestock and heirloom vegetables. His perfect day would be hunting deer, dove, or ducks then babysitting his smoker while watching the sunset over the blackwater of Lake Waccamaw.