The Thanksgiving turkey is a beast of no nation
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Nov 18th 2020
by Ellen Nye
Benjamin Franklin liked his with a zesty oyster sauce. The American revolutionary and polymath was so enthusiastic about eating turkey that he pioneered a new slaughtering technique to make the flesh “uncommonly tender”. He also nurtured a patriotic sentimentality about the bird itself. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Franklin joked that the new country’s emblem should not be a bald eagle but a turkey, “a true original native of America…that would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards”.
Later generations of Americans have echoed Franklin’s enthusiasm. More than 200 years on, a giant effigy of the fan-tailed fowl leads the annual Thanksgiving parade in New York. Every year on that day, some 40m turkey carcasses are roasted, boiled and brined.
Few things seem more American than this oversized hulk of meat. Yet as its name suggests, the turkey is a citizen of the world. Though the bird was native to the Americas, it took a circuitous route back to the Thanksgiving dinners of today.
The Aztecs enjoyed turkey layered over dog meat or stewed in a sauce similar to the mole served in Mexico today. Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztec empire, was struck by seeing “chickens as large as peacocks” in the markets of Tenochtitlán. His fellow Spanish colonialists loved the taste of these strange birds; they were “incomparably better and more tender than that of the peacock of Spain”, according to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. So they shipped them back to Europe. Unlike potatoes and tomatoes, which took some time to catch on, this export from the New World was an instant hit. By the mid-16th century there were turkey farms not just in Spain but England, France, Italy and Scandinavia.
Few things seem more American than this oversized hulk of meat
European chefs experimented with the colourful fowl. Many boiled it before roasting the bird on a spit to bronze the skin. Turkey pies were also popular, sometimes served with the head and feathers poking through the pastry crust. In fancier kitchens turkey was stuffed with oysters, prunes, liver, truffles and chestnuts. In Renaissance Florence, Cosimo di Medici was so delighted by the bird’s appearance he commissioned a sculpture of it.
The turkey was quick to establish itself in European eating traditions. In 1573 an English poet called Thomas Tusser penned verses instructing housewives to offer “turkey well drest” at Christmas (the advice resonated: Britons now eat some 10m turkeys during the festive season each year). By the late 16th century, the new bird had become standard Christmas fare at the posher dining tables of Europe. But there is no proof that turkey was served at the 1621 meal later cited as the inspiration for Thanksgiving – we know only that the Plymouth colonists in Massachusetts killed some fowl when they celebrated their first harvest by dining with the Wampanoag, and the locals brought deer.
As Europe got to grips with turkey recipes, the fowl was zig-zagging its way through the world’s trade routes. In 1612 the Mughal emperor ordered his courtier to go to a port on India’s west coast and buy a delicacy he described as “larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock”. “Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different colour,” he said. “When it is in heat it is quite red – one might say it had adorned itself with red coral.”
As the emperor’s elaborate description suggests, no one was quite sure what to call this feathered foreigner. Most people knew only that it had come from far away – and early names were based on guess work about its origins.
The French called it dinde, a corruption of poulet d’inde or “chicken of India”. The English got it hopelessly mixed up with another recherché treat, the guinea fowl. These similar-looking but smaller birds had made their way over from Africa. Some people thought they’d been brought by merchants from the Ottoman Empire (which was widely referred to as Turkey), and called the birds “turkie hennes”. Early enthusiasts such as Thomas Tusser mistakenly slapped the Ottoman designation on the North American import as well.
Discerning foodies in Europe eventually worked out where each bird came from, and the smaller one’s name was corrected to “guinea fowl”. But the word “turkey” had prestige – the Ottoman empire was a gateway to all kinds of exotic luxury goods from the East – and the bigger bird clung on to the name.
Turkey meat became so integral to the English diet that 17th-century colonists, seemingly unaware of the bird’s origin, took domesticated turkeys with them to America. Most turkeys eaten today are actually descended from these settler fowl – wild turkey had more or less vanished from the continent by the end of the 19th century. Genetically and linguistically, the turkey is a creature of both the Old World and New.
The turkey took sometime longer to settle into its place at the heart of the American national myth. In the 19th century a patriotic journalist called Sarah Hale waged a long campaign for a national day of Thanksgiving, and in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday (the link with the Plymouth pilgrims was added to the story later).
Every festival, of course, needs a meal at its heart, and the turkey was getting good PR at the time. This was partly due to Charles Dickens’s schmaltzy morality tale “A Christmas Carol”, which was wildly popular with war-weary American readers. The transformation of a joyless miser into the kind of person who gives his clerk’s family a prize turkey captured the popular imagination. And so the turkey, an immigrant fowl with native roots, named for yet another land altogether, gobbled its way to the heart of America’s invented festival.
Once turkeys ruled the roost at Thanksgiving, the birds became subject to the bold innovations of industrialisation. The advent of refrigerated transport in the 20th century meant that turkeys could be shipped frozen – farmers no longer had to corral their livestock into waddling to nearby markets, as they had for centuries. That meant industrial breeders could concentrate on raising big-breasted birds that matured quickly.
The average turkey slaughtered today weighs nearly double what it did in 1960. Most birds are so large they are unable to have sex – hens have to be artificially inseminated. Small wonder that, compared with the wild breeds that made the conquistadors drool, turkeys today are often bland and need a generous slug of gravy. But they are a cost-efficient way of delivering festive calories to millions. (Somewhere along the way, the word “turkey” also became slang for a person who is foolish or inept.)
Genetically and linguistically, the turkey is a creature of both the Old World and New
This year coronavirus has cast a pall over Thanksgiving celebrations: many Americans have opted not to travel or gather in large groups. According to Butterball, a giant of turkey farming, almost a third of Americans plan to celebrate with only their immediate family, a sharp increase from last year. This is bad news for farmers of a bird bred big: there isn’t enough time to rear a new crop suited to more modest gatherings.
Globally, the number of turkey-gobblers is rising. Though picky Americans tend to focus on the bird’s ample breast meat, other nations seem equally interested in its legs and thighs. Israelis, not Americans, are the biggest turkey-guzzlers on a per-head basis. Some reckon that’s because, in the early years of statehood, many people in Israel were too poor to eat beef (which had to be imported) or chicken (which had to be refrigerated), and turned to turkey because it was easy to farm and suitable for curing. Turkey pastrami is a staple sandwich meat in Israel today.
Even in China, where the richer flavours of pork, beef and lamb dominate the cuisine, the oversized bird has been making inroads. One Chinese farmer told the South China Morning Post in 2018 that demand for turkey was creeping up because, as in Renaissance Europe, it was seen as “exotic” (in Chinese it is known as “fire chicken”, for its red crest). As any Thanksgiving chef who has slaved over half a dozen flavour-enhancing side dishes knows, the meat itself has only ever been part of turkey’s enduring appeal.■
Recipe: An 18th century take on the turducken
First make a good standing Crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick, bone a Turkey, a Goose, a Fowl, a Partridge, and a Pigeon, season them all very well, take half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, half an Ounce of black Pepper.
All beat fine together, two large Spoonfuls of Salt, mix them together. Open the Fowls all down the Back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the Partridge, cover them; then the Fowl, then the Goose, and then the Turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the Crust, so as it will look only like a whole Turkey; then have a Hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean Cloth. Cut it to Pieces, that is jointed; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other Side Woodcock more Game, and what Sort of Wild fowl you can get.
Season them all well and lay them close; put at least four Pounds of Butter into the Pye then lay on your Lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four Hours.
Taken from “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse (1774)
ILLUSTRATIONS: MATTHEW RICHARDSON