Why Cape Cod Turkey Is Actually Made Of Fish

Imagine, if you will, being invited to a family member or friend's home in Cape Cod for a vacation. You've heard a lot about how beautiful it is this time of year — the fresh coastal air, and of course, the food. When you arrive at your destination, your host says that you're lucky to be joining tonight, since they're having a regional specialty: Cape Cod Turkey. Although you'd be expecting to smell the tell-tale aroma of poultry stewing in its own juices, you instead smell something rather different: It smells sort of like ... fish?

New England is well-known as a place for fantastic coastal relaxation and delicious coastal grub. Be it clam chowder or lobster tails, New England has a variety of seafood dishes to try. It's also known for being the home of fried clams, cranberry farms, and of course, Cape Cod Chips (via Spoon University). Suffice to say, Cape Cod — and New England as a whole — is a place for any true gourmet lover's vacation. 

But past the beautiful beaches and lobster bisque, the region seems to have an interesting take on what we think of as "turkey." Just in case you happen to swing by the region sometime this summer and notice something called a "Cape Cod Turkey," there's a chance it may not be the white meat bird you were expecting it to be. 

Cape Cod Turkey is made of salt cod

Cape Cod Turkey isn't actually a turkey at all, at least only in name. The dish is actually made up of salt cod, boiled potatoes, salt pork or bacon, and drenched in cream sauce and hard-boiled eggs (via New England Today). Although it may sound strange to refer to a turkey-less dish as a "turkey," the origins of this unconventionally named meal are tied to the region's history of fishing and booming cod economy.

Although the reason behind the name is obscure — with New England Today reasoning that this dish was eaten around Thanksgiving and was called "Cape Cod Turkey" as an inside joke to the people of the region — Paste Magazine explains that the dish came about because of the sheer abundance of salt cod. Since there was so much cod in the area and refrigeration as we know it had not yet been invented, the people of the Cape had to develop a wide variety of cod-based dishes in order to prevent waste, thus, leading to the invention of the "Cape Cod Turkey."

While this may lead you to believe Cape Cod doesn't have any actual turkey, you would be mistaken. Cape Cod is actually plentiful with wild turkey. According to the Cape Cod Times, wild turkeys are beginning to flourish in the region as of 2021 after a centuries-long absence. 

So the next time you visit Cape Cod and want some turkey, be sure to specify which kind you'd want.