Happy Thanksgiving! Or if you’re not in the United States – or just ungrateful… then Happy Unthanksnotgiving.
The Thanksgiving turkey gets in a good month before the Christmas turkey. So today’s the day that, once again extracted from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, we’ll delve into that particular festive treat.
The bird landed on Western dinner plates around the sixteenth century, not long after roast dinners were starting to resemble today’s a bit more. Root vegetables were eaten nearly as much as meat and newcomers like sprouts were joining the plate. Such perennial “favourites” (personally I still have to gulp my one-sprout-a-year down with a glass of red) offered highly nutritious vitamins through the season, oddly growing in even the roughest of winters.
New foodstuffs arrived in the hand luggage of explorers. Sugar was an expensive luxury but helpful for the traditional Christmas sweetmeats; sugared bacon was a Tudor delicacy. But the prized souvenir was a meat, because after all, a special occasion such as Christmas deserves a special bird – and goose, swan, and peacock had all been done.
The Southern Mexican turkey was a domesticated bird, making it very easy to transport, so by 1525 these birds started appearing in European ports. Originally it was confused with the African guinea fowl, arriving via the Ottoman empire, land of the Turks. So the turkey suered a case of mistaken identity; though it had never even been to Turkey, the name “turkey” stuck.
The whole naming of this bird is one giant fiasco, to be honest. The country it was thought to be from wasn’t even called Turkey until after World War I, so the bird was (wrongly) named first. Then there’s the fact that the bird they thought it was wasn’t even from Turkey (which wasn’t called Turkey) but East Africa – the birds just changed hands a few times between Turks en route. Finally, the world over, they all seem to call it different names based on other places that it’s not even from. The Turks themselves called it “an Indian bird”, as did the French who call it an “Indian rooster” (a “coq d’Inde”, now abridged to “dinde”). In Malaysia it’s a “Dutch chicken”, while the Portuguese call it a “Peru bird”. The humble turkey should really be called “Mexican guinea fowl lookalike”.
Yorkshireman William Strickland bought six turkeys from some Native Americans and brought them to British shores via the Spanish Netherlands; the first turkeys were sold in Bristol at the price of tuppence – unsurprisingly at that rate, the locals gobbled them up.
But this was at least a two-bird race to the dinner plate. The goose was faring well as a seasonal bird to eat, just not necessarily at Christmas. Instead Michaelmas on 29 September was the day that each goose should look over its shoulders. They’d been popular with the Celts in their Samhain festival and also in our very old friend Yule.
Long before the Dutch/American/Mexican/Peruvian/Indian turkey could get its claws onto our Christmas menu, the goose beat it to it, all thanks to another sea explorer, not bringing anything back from the New World but defending the Old World…
Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard led the defence against the Spanish Armada, and on 29 September 1588 word reached Queen Elizabeth of their success. She was tucking into her traditional Michaelmas goose at the time, and was so overjoyed at the victory that she decreed that goose become celebration food from then on. That Christmas, roasted goose was the bird of choice. So when Michaelmas later waned, the goose clung to Christmas instead. In the next century though, James I preferred turkey to boar’s head, so the goose’s old rival was back on the table. In the Victorian era, popular Prince Albert began a fashion (for those who could afford it) for the more succulent turkey – and the goose’s goose was cooked.
Victoria did of course find a variety of meats placed in front of her each Christmas, including exotic birds like swan, snipe, or capercaillie. In 1851, the royal menu contained turkey for the first time, and that meant that the nation would copy. Thanks to Victorian methods of mass production, this was now possible at an affordable cost.
Over in Norfolk, these turkeys would be raised with the sole aim of the Christmas dinner plate. So how to get hundreds of turkeys from Norfolk to London in time? Simple. Starting in October each year, you make them walk to, yes, their own execution. is annual procession of the doomed birds was quite a sight, especially thanks to the shoes they wore. To protect their feet, each turkey had hard-wearing leather boots for the 100- mile one-way commute to market. At least they had a big meal waiting for them in London; the weary birds were fattened up in time for Christmas.
For more trivial cutlets and factual drumsticks like this, grab yourself a copy of Hark! The Biography of Christmas, rrp £7.99.