Edible histories: turkey

Categories: History of food

From the New World, to Thomas Cramner, via the A12: the remarkable history of turkey

Words: Mark Riddaway

It says much about the rich, complex history of food that the two key components of our ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner—turkey and potatoes—are both about as British as human sacrifice and sun deities.

Like the now humble spud, the turkey was once hugely exotic—a staple of the Americas, completely unheard of by Europeans until Columbus stumbled upon the New World and found himself confronted by tomatoes, chilli peppers and a domesticated bird with a placid temperament and the body of a steroid-pumped chicken.

In 1521, when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, his conquistadores came into contact with an Aztec society completely in thrall to the turkey—the historian AW Schorger calculated that the emperor Montezuma and his household chomped their way through 365,000 of these big old birds in a single year. For Europeans whose experience of farmed fowl extended little further than chickens (tasty but small) and peacocks (big, beautiful but frankly horrible to eat), the impact was immediate.

A good lunch
The Spaniards, perennial lovers of a good lunch, were soon shipping all sorts of exciting American foodstuffs back to the old country. In October 1511, a royal order was sent to Miguel de Passamonte, chief treasurer of the new Caribbean territories, instructing him to send 10 turkeys to Spain to establish a breeding stock. Europe had a juicy new form of protein to grace its tables.

Quite when the turkey first made it to England is unclear, but probably the mid-1530s. In 1550, William Strickland, who sailed to the Americas with the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot, was granted a coat of arms including “a turkey-cock in his pride proper” in celebration of his role in introducing the bird to these shores.

With its impressive scale and exotic aura, the turkey found a place on the menu of Europe’s most opulent feasts—in 1549, Catherine de Medici had 70 of the birds served to her guests at a Paris banquet. It proved an excellent alternative to the once ubiquitous peacock.

Dramatic plumage
The turkey may not have been blessed with dramatic plumage (a peacock would usually be served with its head and feathers stitched back on) but it more than made up for it by actually tasting nice—according to the Spanish writer Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés its flesh was “incomparably better and more tender than that of the peafowls in Spain”.

There was, though, such a thing as too much turkey. In 1541, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer issued an injunction designed to clamp down on priestly gluttony. In a foreshadowing of the ‘in it together’ approach to austerity, Cranmer selflessly limited his own meal allowance, and that of other archbishops, to a meagre six meat courses and four desserts.

The turkey was included in a clause limiting the number of “greater fishes or fowles” that could be served up to a cleric in a single dish: “There should be but one in a dish, as crane, swan, turkeycock, haddock, pike, tench.” Any priest wishing to dine on a duo of turkeys with a side of swan would simply have to pull in his belt.

The dinner table
In England, the turkey’s association with Christmas developed rapidly. Turkeys hatch in late spring and grow to maturity in around seven months, meaning that they’re ready for the dinner table in December.

In Thomas Tusser’s 1573 poem Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, which contains instructions for country-living—like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in rhyming couplets—the perfect Christmas fare was said to include: “Beef, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best / Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest.”

A Book of Cookrye, published in 1584, includes the oldest surviving English recipe for turkey—split in two to ensure fast and even cooking, filled with a “good store of butter” then baked for five hours—while Thomas Dawson proved in 1587 that there’s no beast too big for an Englishman to stick in a pie: in The Good Huswife’s Jewell he recommended boning the bird, boiling it, larding it, then enclosing in a pastry “coffin”.

To Souce Turkeys
The 17th century recipes of Kenelme Digby were even more adventurous. One, entitled To Souce Turkeys, involved a boned turkey being boiled in wine and vinegar, seasoned with salt, covered with more vinegar and then stored for a month.

These dishes remained the preserve of the wealthy. Turkeys, while easily domesticated, proved expensive to raise, thanks to their hearty appetites susceptibleness to disease. Mrs Beeton wrote that “the turkey is one of the most difficult birds to rear”. The result was a bird consumed on special occasions by the middle classes, and only dreamt of by the poor.

From as early as the 1570s, the centre for British turkey breeding had become firmly established in East Anglia. Norfolk turkeys were part of the cargo carried by migrants heading from England to the new colonies of North America, despite the entire continent being packed to the gunnels with turkeys of its own.

Waddling along the highways
Getting turkeys from East Anglia to the markets of London wasn’t easy. This isn’t a bird whose meat benefits from hanging around for days on end so in the days before refrigeration, they had to be transported live and—given how few can fit in a cart—on foot. This led to the surreal sight of massive gangs of turkeys waddling along the highways of eastern England.

In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe reported that “300 droves of turkeys… pass in one season over Stratford Bridge on the River Stour”. With an average drove numbering 500 birds, that meant 150,000 turkeys toddling across a bridge over the course of a few months. And you think the A12 is congested now.

Like so much of our ‘traditional’ festive iconography, turkeys became central to our image of Christmas during the reign of Queen Victoria. The final chapter of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol played its part in cementing this association.

An honest expression
Scrooge, overwhelmed by his discovery of the joys of generosity, buys a “prize turkey” to send to Bob Cratchit as a gift. His excitement borders on the unhinged: “‘I shall love it, as long as I live!’ cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. ‘What an honest expression it has in its face! It’s a wonderful knocker! Here’s the turkey. Hallo! Whoop! How are you! Merry Christmas!’”

It was only in the 1950s that turkeys became a ubiquitous part of the festive dinner. The reason for this was simple—new intensive farming techniques and advances in animal medicine meant that the price of a turkey fell to a level conducive with the average household income.

Sadly, these same farming techniques, and the dominance of the selectively-bred, fast-maturing broad breasted white, which sacrificed flavour for size and cheapness, have since turned mass produced turkey into a bland shadow of Scrooge’s bird.

Traditional English breeds
Thankfully, the butchers of Borough Market deal exclusively in traditional English breeds, all of them free range and packed with flavour. These are real prize turkeys—enough to make even the greatest of humbugs hallo and whoop.