The turkey story begins in the New World where it was first domesticated in Mexico. When the Spanish conquistadores discovered its fine eating qualities, they shipped them back to Europe where its popularity quickly spread. In fact, it had become so common in western Europe before the active colonization of North America that first the settlers of permanent English and Dutch colonies knew it before they arrived. And although they would propagate the domesticated strains that had originated further south, they would enjoy the turkey as both wild game and tamed barnyard fowl. Once established in our early settlements, it was enjoyed in the culinary styles of Old World kitchens. Apart from basic roasting and stewing, this kind of cookery bore little resemblance to Native American cookery. So much for the bit of “fakelore” so deeply embedded in our legends that Squanto and his kin introduced the bird to the English at the first Thanksgiving.
For the 16th-century English at home, the turkey must have seemed an exotic bird and a welcome improvement over the bustards, swans, herons, and peacocks, often tough or fishy-tasting, that had been the celebratory birds of the medieval feasting table. Its very naming – for the Ottoman Empire known by most only as the strange and foreign source of expensive and high-status imports – tells us something about what must have been its awesome first impressions, but nothing of its actual source. (Incidentally, the term “turkey” was similarly used to identify other new and foreign foods, among them maize – “Turkish Corne.”) The bird itself was so readily embraced into English cuisine that by the mid-1500s its growing volume in the markets required price regulating. It took very little time for the turkey to become a familiar food in a nation of meat-eaters. This was, then, the context of turkey in the colonies.
Cooking the bird was often guided by the then-traditional English culinary styles. At first it was treated with the medieval heritage of boiling and roasting (fattened turkeys were often boiled and simmered), methods well suited to the technologies of early settlements. A mid-17th-century penchant for potting fatty birds opened a new style of preserving large birds, and some were even pickled. And they were baked in meat pies, often having been cooked before major holidays and eaten cold, heavily seasoned with spices, pepper, and salt, and sealed with butter. Elaborate dishes required boning and pounding, and in the case of Yorkshire Christmas pie, stuffed with a nested succession of birds of decreasing size. By the 17th and 18th centuries, turkeys had become centerpieces of many an English Christmas dinner, where they were frequently served roasted, stuck full of whole cloves. Cookbooks of western Europe began to offer a wider range of turkey recipes.
Cookbook treatments varied, not only according to historical legacies but also in some relationship to the season of the year. As was the case in all meat consumption then, and whether domesticated or wild, turkeys eaten spring and summer were less plump, and rarely as tasty. Fall birds, benefitting from the harvest of nuts and seeds (among them Indian corn) were far more flavorful, and those having deposits of fat in the tissue were more suited to roasting. The boiling vs. roasting recipe styles may in some way reflect this. Some directions included “parboiling,” a pre-boil to tenderize the bird, then followed by roasting. Other dishes were entirely boiled and served with a rich sauce. It was, of course, the handsome roasted turkey that survived.
The elements of what would become our Thanksgiving festivities were thus already in place when the first permanent colonists of the American northeast cast about for the appropriate fixings for their fall and winter feasts. At the first “Harvest Home” of early 17th-century Plimoth, Massachusetts, the turkey was an important component, but not an innovative one. Recorded at the time as turkey with “puddings in the belly,” it was very likely a version of the stuffed turkey described below.
European cookbooks used in the American colonies give us an idea of what early American turkey dishes may have been like. Dipping into two of several English works confirms its presence in cities and farms. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife instructed housewives on choosing (buying) a good one:
Martha Bradley’s British Housewife (1758) suggested several ways of cooking them: Roasted with Onion Sauce; Roasted with Oysters; Forced, (stuffed with a sausage-like mixture) the Italian Way; the Dutch Way; with Cray-Fish; au Bourgeois; Boiled the Dutch way; Stewed; in a Pudding In Guts (sausage links) Glazed; and in a Cullis (sauce). It would seem that the origins of what would become sausage or seafood stuffings were already in place.
Recipes in the Dutch Sensible Cook (mid-1600s) were not very different, as the Dutch cooks in New Netherlands had been doing the same sort of thing. Like the English, they saw the turkey as an appropriate banquet component, sometimes boiled it, and served it in rich and spiced sauces, and included it in their harvest celebrations.
Pulling this together into a larger picture, we can say that Europeans at home adapted an indigenous American bird, made it their own, and then returned it to the land of its origin via colonization, where they continued to cook it in the European (not Native-American) style. As a festival dish, turkey made a strong place for itself, fulfilling the requirements of being available to everyone and culturally significant. Of course, there were some regional or cultural differences – for some elitists it may have seemed too plebian, and for those who continued to identify themselves and their culture as English it may not have been as symbolic. On their dining tables turkey may have taken second place to the traditions of English roast beef and meat pies. Region and locality may also have had something to do with it; in New England the venison of Native Americans and Pilgrims continued as the local holiday choice of a rural farming society. where game constituted a good part of the meat supply.
After the War of Independence, the new American nation underwent a period of differentiation and definition, and holiday celebrations shifted accordingly. Thanksgiving rituals were increasingly codified and the place of the great bird, wild or domesticated, became increasingly essential to the underlying metaphor of the feast.
Once established, the menu of these festive dinners continued largely unchanged throughout the 19th century. Even as local and state-wide Thanksgiving holidays merged into a national holiday, and as the pageantry of the emerging popular culture of Victorian Christmas grew, the turkey meal became institutionalized as the prescribed American holiday repast. Centennial patriotism and colonial revivalism strengthened its message, and both Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners continued to feature the bird. Indeed, the menus of these two dinners were almost identical and distinguished only by their desserts — Christmas puddings and mince pies in December and pumpkin pies in November. By the late 1800s developing American advertising reflected the bird as the familiar November icon, and they were was used in a variety of promotional ploys. For the growing urban populace, turkey remained the idealized piéce de résistance.
And so it continued throughout the 20th century, romanticized and popularized by Norman Rockwell paintings and ubiquitous greeting cards. Only in recent decades has the shifting emphasis on creative menus and ethnic traditions brought about an entirely new holiday table. For example, vegetarian variations and the desire for something altogether new have found their way into annual food pages of our media. Even lasagna has become a centerpiece for many (not only Italians), sometimes replacing the turkey and sometimes sharing the limelight.
Like America, the bird and the feast have evolved. Throughout American social history, the word turkey has carried varied meanings, attesting to its inherent place in our culture. Mitford M. Matthews’ Dictionary of Americanisms contains more than four columns of “turkey” expressions. At the very least we have the folk tune “Turkey in the Hay, Turkey in the Straw.” But today turkey has taken on entirely different connotations, telling of its evolving role. Low in fat, it has become a healthy and inexpensive substitute for red meats, look-alike and taste-alike burgers, sausages, and bacons; although it still appears on holiday tables, it is no longer a holiday food exclusively. Perhaps this has contributed to its lowered status. At a time when the bird was a special treat, it would have been unheard of to call someone of low intelligence “a turkey.” And still, everyone knows what is meant when we wish each other a happy “Turkey Day”
What a long way the turkey image has come from its early naming and its evocation of Turkish exotica. Perhaps its ability to change with the times has made it one of our true Americanisms.
The following recipes are borrowed from Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife (London, 1756), an English cookbook used in the American colonies. The recipe for boiled turkey does not seem as appealing as the roasted versions, but was nevertheless commonly prepared. It is included here as an example of the kind of dish once (but no longer) in favor in the American colonies. Perhaps roasting facilities were not always available in average homes, and perhaps the taste for boiled flesh was a hold-over from earlier centuries. It leads us to wonder what was done with the remaining broth. In any case the sauce sounds fine.
This roasted version may suggest variations on your favorite stuffing, and make you grateful for whole-bird roasting. I assume this roasting was best done in a pan in a brick oven, as even large Dutch ovens will do as much steaming as roasting.