Welcome to Part the Second of The Christmas Bird! This sort of accidentally ended up being the history of the turkey. It’s because I’m like sooooooooo thorough omg.
The wild turkey, native to Mexico and Central America, was nothing like the bird we know today. They were incredibly intelligent, brightly colored, and lived in flocks. Certain American Indian tribes, like the Zuni and Sioux, connected the turkey to the sun the same way early Europeans did with the goose. In one early Zuni legend it is said that the turkey, in an effort to raise the sun, burned his head feathers off, and that is why the turkey is bald. The turkey is associated with crops and their feathers were used in clothing and rituals. Later, European immigrants brought their custom of using the wishbone of the turkey to predict events to America.
When it came to feasting, wild turkey was more plentiful in the New World than goose. Once settlers used it to celebrate Thanksgiving it was initiated into the seasonal feast bird club. The turkey had the same seasonal maturation as a goose and was just plain easier to come by. Some continued using goose for Christmas dinner until the 19th century, but most people replaced it with turkey simply because it was more accessible. The Aztecs and American Indians in the New World had already domesticated it by the time it was brought to the Old World around 1523-24.
Turkey wasn’t only loved for its feast possibilities. Wild turkeys were so intelligent that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make them the national bird. The turkey was a “much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” He thought the bald eagle everyone else was so fond of had “bad moral character” (Bowler, 230). Oh yeah? Tell us a little more about bad moral character, Mr. Franklin. Right after you’re done cheating on your wife.
And now we come to the turkey’s journey across the pond. There are several stories about how the turkey came to Europe and eventually Britain. None of them have been proved to be without a doubt true. The most frustrating part is they all seem slightly possible, but you can’t tell without an actual written record. Ah, the uncertainty of history.
Someone bring me my DeLorean.
The first story I have to share begins with Spain. One version says Spanish ships transported the turkey from the Aztecs in the New World to the homeland after Cortés feasted on it in the West Indies. Another story says Sebastian Cabot’s officers brought it with them when they returned home from their trip to the New World. Either way, it made it’s first appearance in Spain around 1519. The bird arrived about the same date as the guinea-fowl, which was also being imported into Spain. It had been rediscovered by the Portuguese in West Africa and traveled by way of merchants who had traveled to West Africa and then traded with Turkey. The guinea-fowl had been dubbed the “Turkie-Henne” (a hen that came from Turkey) and due to their similar arrival times, the turkey was also called a Turkie-Henne. From Spain, the turkey traveled to the Spanish Netherlands, and finally came to “England’s Holland” of East Anglia.
The guinea-fowl had been popular with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Histories written between the 16th and the 18th century claimed they had feasted on turkey regularly, but it’s much more likely that there was name confusion and they were feasting on guinea-fowl. There’s also a legend that Charlemagne had been served turkey at his wedding feast, but since we know about the name confusion, we would assume that the bird in question was, again, a guinea-fowl. French philosopher and food historian, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, has a different reason for why it was impossible turkey was served at Charlemagne’s wedding. It’s not because there is no proof, but because of “the appearance of the bird, which is clearly outlandish” (Muir, 55). He also claimed that the Jesuits introduced turkey to Europe.
Brilliant man, totally off base.
Other sources say there was no confusion between the two birds in England. There are references to both turkey-cocks and guinea-fowl in journals and accounts of noble families. The turkey-cocks are described as the size of a crane or a swan and the guinea-fowl were said to be about the size of a capon or pheasant. In addition, there are mentions of both birds together: “At much the same time a certain Sir William Petre was keeping his table birds alive until wanted in a large cage in his Essex orchard, ‘partridges, pheasants, guinea-hens, turkey hens and such like’” (Tannahill, 210).
Another story of how the turkey got to Britain concerns British merchants on their way home from a business trip to Turkey. They stopped at a friend’s home in Cádiz, Spain, who had recently traveled and explored the West Indies. They were given several live turkey birds as a gift, which they brought with them to England. The bird was called a turkey because it came to England (sort of) via Turkey. When it comes down to it, it came from Spain. It makes no sense. Then again, could you imagine eating “Spain” at Christmas? That would be weird.
Then there is the direct-to-England route. A man named William Strickland introduced turkeys to England when he imported six turkeys to the port of Bristol in 1526. Of course there is no written proof, but hey! who needs written proof when you have word of mouth! Even if Strickland wasn’t the first to import the turkey to England, he certainly became the most important turkey trader. He got rich selling them and was granted a coat of arms featuring a turkey-cock in 1550. That’s right. In 1550 you could get a coat of arms for getting rich.
If that was the case and turkey didn’t have any connection to Turkey, then how did it get its name? Remember when Columbus landed in America and thought he had discovered India? Apparently he saw the (then) colorful bird and believed it to be part of the peacock family. He called them tuka, which supposedly meant, “peacock” in 16th century India. Other countries also believed that the turkey had come via India. In France it was called coq d’Inde, in Italy it was galle d’India, and in Germany it was indianische Henn. In India itself, the bird was called peru. Some say that the American Indians called the birds furkee while others claim the word came from the noise turkey’s make when they’re afraid: “turk turk turk.”
The first written record of the turkey existence in England is by an Archbishop Crammer in 1541. He wrote about the gluttony of “greater fowls,” including both the swan and turkey-cock, and declared that his clergy should eat no more than one greater fowl at a meal. Remember, some people liked to have goose, swan, and peacock at their meals and once turkey arrived on the scene it was also present at the table.
In Tudor and Stuart times, it was common to baste large birds with butter, lard them with pork fat, or cover them with bacon to keep them from drying out. Turkeys were studded with cloves during roasting in addition to being smothered with some kind of fat. In the Georgian period, roast turkey was served with a spiced bread sauce with onions, similar to the bread sauces that had been served with goose.
Europeans had no trouble introducing turkey to their festive meals because they already serving big birds (not to be confused with Big Bird), including somewhat inedible ones. Turkey was large, decorative, and delicious and considered an exotic bird that only the wealthy could afford and it became a popular bird. Catherine de Medici held a banquet that consisted of 70 “Indian chickens” and 7 “Indian roosters.”
In England, turkey began to replace birds such as swan and peacock at Christmas in rich households. By 1570 an Englishman named Thomas Trusser wrote that even common farmer was enjoying domesticated turkey and it had replaced birds such as herron, goose, cockerel, and bustard for the middle class.
In 1555 enough turkeys were being sold in London that their price was legally fixed in the London market. Turkey meat was cut up and sold in pieces or slices by vendors and became part of the general public’s diet, but buying a whole roast or boiled turkey was still expensive and remained a luxury. By the 17th and 18th century, turkeys were the most common Christmas bird, but their prices were not in reach of the lower class (e.g. the majority of the population) until the 20th century.
Let me backtrack for a second. Boiled turkey? Really?
The expansion of London’s population between 1485 and 1785 was great – it went from 75,000 inhabitants to 850,000, which necessitated an increase in food production, provided by surrounding rural areas. In Britain, turkey was not farmed on small, individually held farms because they were difficult and expensive to raise. They weren’t profitable enough to earn their keep if a farmer only had 20 or so turkeys. Small flocks were only available on the estates of the elite, while large populations were raised outside of large urban areas. In the 1600’s, they were bred mostly on farms in the south east of England (East Anglia) in large flocks. That area already grew plentiful amounts of corn and grain so the turkeys could be easily and cheaply fed.
Since turkeys were incredibly hard birds to raise their prices were jacked up considerably. Prices dropped in the 1950’s because of intensive modern farming methods, but that wasn’t particularly helpful for those alive between 1523-1949. Unless they had a Tardis.
By the end of the 18th century, the turkey was plentiful in Norfolk, Cambridge, and Suffolk. Norfolk turkeys were especially scrumptious. Around Christmas in 1815, Charles Lamb wrote to a friend in China that “you have no turkeys; you would not desecrate the festival by offering up a withered Chinese bantam instead of the savoury grand Norfolcian holocaust that smokes all around my nostrils at this moment from a thousand firesides” (Muir, 56). When he says “holocaust” I believe he means “mass slaughter.” In the late 19th century, the Norfolk turkey was called the Rolls Royce of birds.
Every year, huge flocks of turkeys would be driven into London for Christmas from turkey farms in East Anglia. The journey began in august and took anywhere from three weeks to three months to make, depending on their original location. Turkeys had trouble walking on the roads, so they were given special shoes to prevent turkey foot injury. In the 1800’s, that queen of the kitchen, Mrs. Beeton, described the process of shoeing a turkey. Farmers would walk the turkeys through warm tar and then sand (for grip and extra protection), creating a sort of bootie. The bootie prevented the bird’s feet from becoming blistered and damaged on their long journey. It was also quite stylish.
Turkeys no longer had need of their stylish booties once rail travel and refrigeration was in introduced in the 19th century. They were slaughtered before being carted off to London.
The Swedish had a slightly different way of bringing up turkeys. Ya know, besides feeding them and putting booties on them. Hannah Glasse wrote in The Art of Cookery (1747) that
“by plunging a just born turkey chick (poult) into a bucket of cold water and forcing it eat a pepper corn…from that time in it will become hardy and no more fear the cold than a hens chick…the truth of these assertions are too well known to be denied; and as convincing proof of their success, it will be sufficient to mention that three Parishes in Sweden have for many years followed this method and gained several hundred pounds by rearing and selling turkeys” (source).
Oy. I just heard PETA scramble to gather enough red paint to splash over the entire country of Sweden, which is a lot of paint because Sweden is totally like 173,745 square miles which is like…a lot of square feet.
Charles Dickens is credited with popularizing the Christmas turkey. The Cratchit family is meant to eat a goose, but Scrooge, after his personality lift, offers up a turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim instead. There is constant reference to the largeness and sumptuousness of the turkey and how very exciting it was to be presented with such a bird. The funny thing is, when you come down to it, it’s not that heart warming. Not for the turkey, anyway. First I will start you with a quote:
“‘Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.
“‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.
“‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?’
“‘What, the one as big as me?’ returned the boy.
“‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck.’
“‘It’s hanging there now,’ replied the boy.
“‘Is it?’ said Scrooge. ‘Go and buy it.’”
Oh how heart warming. Scrooge bought that turkey for the poor Cratchits! But what about the turkey?
What you should keep in mind is that from the earliest times of man up until, well, today, humans have a cruel way of treating and slaughtering their animals. I’m not going to go into details about some of the more disturbing methods, but I will tell you what “hanging” a turkey means.
In the 19th century, folks were very particular about the color of their meat. They liked their animals to be drained of all blood before cooking so that there was minimal blood on the plate when the meat was cut and, in poultry’s case, the meat was white. How did they accomplish that? Right underneath the turkey’s tongue is a small vein. Cooks would slit that vein, hang a turkey by its feet, and let it bleed out, drop by drop. Literally. It went drop by drop. The turkey’s death could take upwards of 6 hours.
Now go read that quote again and feel the Christmas joy.
The British Royal Family ate their first Christmas turkey in 1851, officially replacing swan as the seasonal dish, 13 years after Charles Dickens had written about the Cratchit’s Christmas turkey. They were fashionably late to the turkey party.
As time has gone on, turkey has become less popular and even a source of disdain. There are always jokes about the overcooked, dry turkey you’re serving made by your annoying but (supposedly) well-intentioned aunt. In 1975, William Connor of the Daily Mirror wrote “what a shocking fraud the turkey is. In life preposterous, insulting – that foolish noise they make to scare you away! In death – unpalatable. The turkey has practically no taste except dry fibrous flavor reminiscent of a mixture of warmed up plaster of Paris and horsehair” (Muir, 56). He’d obviously never had fried turkey.
Modern domesticated turkeys are a little different from their wild ancestors. They’ve been bred to have larger breasts and more white meat. They’ve also been bred to be a lot more stupid. Probably not intentionally, but with no need to outsmart predators there’s no need to exercise their brains. Wild turkeys, who can easily detect traps and run really fast, have eleventy bajillion more IQ points than domesticated turkeys. The lack of smarts hasn’t made them any less curious, though. Groups of domestic turkeys have been seen standing in the rain with their beaks aimed towards the sky. No one really knows why they do it. Maybe they’re thirsty? Or they’re confused about those odd drops plummeting towards earth? Or maybe turkeys are all really aliens and rain indicates the arrival of bootie shaped spaceships from the planet Gallopavo that take them home where they feast on humans fattened on corn and grain.
There are stories of turkeys drowning due to rain gazing. There’s no evidence for that, but without guidance, domesticated turkeys don’t know to come in from the rain. Young turkeys that only have down feathers to protect them are more likely to die from exposure rather than drowning.
Fun turkey fact: turkeys love music. Musician Jim Nollman went to Mexico in the 1970’s and lived next door to a family who owned a turkey. Every morning he would go outside to play his flute and when he hit a certain note the turkey would gobble. Eventually the turkey would be waiting for him at the fence in the morning.
Turkey is the most popular Christmas dish in the Western world. It’s eaten all over the place and each country has their own way of raising and prepping their turkeys. In Lisbon, Portugal, famers walk the streets with their flocks until customers stop them to purchase a bird. Once the turkey has been chosen, the farmer forces alcohol down its throat and lets it run free for a little while its insides are marinated. Then the bird is slaughtered, plucked, gutted, and brined with lemon and bay leaves for 12 hours, after which it is hung (not in the Dickens sense) for another 12 hours before cooking. Brazilians have a similar technique. They feed the birds a rum called cachaçe before it’s slaughtered on Christmas Eve.
Everyone eats their turkey in different ways. Frying is becoming popular in the US while in Mexico it’s eaten, traditionally, with a mole sauce made with chocolate and chili peppers (may I direct your attention towards this). In Spain they stuff their turkey with truffles, in Burgundy they’re stuffed with chestnuts, and in my house turkey is stuffed with the greatest chestnut and sausage dressing of all time. If you think your mom makes a better dressing than my mom, you are sorely mistaken, my friend.
Speaking of stuffing your face with turkey, I’d like to say one more thing. It has to do with tryptophan.
It seems to be common knowledge that turkey contains a chemical called tryptophan that makes the eater sleepy and desirous of a wittle nappy. Eating turkey on Christmas will immediately put you into a stupor of epic proportions, and obviously it’s all that stupid bird’s fault.
Eating a small amount of turkey contains negligible amounts of tryptophan. To feel the effects you would have to eat an entire turkey on an empty stomach, which would probably make you vomit before knocking you out. Not to mention that other foods, such as chicken, pork, and cheese contain a larger amount of tryptophan per 100 gram than turkey. If small amounts of tryptophan could make us fall asleep we’d be passing out every time we ate nachos, chicken casserole, or a HoneyBaked ham.
What’s really making you sleepy is the over-indulging. Overeating, excessive fat, and alcohol are what’s putting you down. Large meals and fats take a lot of energy to digest, requiring your blood to attend to your digestive system rather than other organ systems, like your nervous system. Hence, sleepy. Plus, most of us drink during the holidays. Alcohol is a depressant for the nervous system, which also can make you sleepy. And drunk. So you can deal with your mother-in-law.
And that’s the end of the 25 Days of Christmas (Food) 2011. Look out, 2012. I got plans for you.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
Bibliography for Part I and II:
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-Bowler, G. Q.. “Goose; Peacock; Turkey.” The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 95, 174, 229-30. Print.
-Davis, Karen. “The True Original Native of America; Why Do We Hate This Celebrated Bird?.” More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books, 2001. 38; 80-81. Print.
-Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol – Charles John Huffam Dickens – Google Books.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=nEyFzAdyWZcC&dq=a+christmas+carol&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
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-Miles, Clement A.. “Christmas Feasting and Sacrificial Survivals.” Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. 203, 284. Print.
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-Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline–Christmas food history.” Food Timeline: food history & vintage recipes . Lynne Olver, n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html#goose>.
-”Poor – and hungry.” Home. stentiford.org, 30 May 2007. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://www.stentiford.org/Issue_24/More%20Christmas%20Pages/3Dec3art1.htm>.
-Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2009. 454. Print.
-Sterling, Justine. “The Story Behind the Christmas Goose – Delish.com.” Recipes, Party Food, Cooking Guides, Dinner Ideas, and Grocery Coupons – Delish.com. Hearst Communications Inc., 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://www.delish.com/food/recalls-reviews/history-of-the-christmas-goose>.
-Tannahill, Reay. “The Turkey.” Food in History. [New, fully rev. and updated ed., 1st American ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988. 210-211. Print.
-”The Turkey At Christmas – A History.” RecipeWISE | Recipes From The UK & Ireland. RecipeWise, n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://recipewise.co.uk/the-history-of-the-turkey-at-christmas>.
-”The history of the Christmas turkey: Recipes: Good Food Channel.” UKTV Home. Good Food Channel, n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2011. <http://uktv.co.uk/food/item/aid/641034>.
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