The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

Talking Turkey

Thanksgiving and Turkey History

Readers may find it incongruous of britishfoodinamerica to devote so much attention to the turkey, a foodstuff associated in the popular mind more with the United States than with Britain. Sources differ on the precise date of its introduction, but the bird had reached England via Spain at least as early as 1541 and by 1575 “had become ‘rather common Christmas fare’ for many English people.” (Wilson 129; Founding Food 161) These turkeys were descended from animals that had been domesticated by Central American Indians before the Iberian conquest and a telling proverb reflects their ancient English lineage:

“Turkeys, carps, hopeps, piccarell, and beer
Came to England all in one year.” (Traditional Foods 174)

Norfolk in East Anglia already was famous for its turkeys during the sixteenth century. The farmers hired “Turkey merchants” to drive their flocks to London for slaughter and these drives, which took a week, became familiar features of the English landscape. In 1724, Defoe noted that turkey droves of three hundred to as many as a thousand birds clogged the route from East Anglia to London throughout the fall. (Turkey 27, 33)

It was customary in England by the end of the eighteenth century for employers to give each worker a Christmas turkey. In 1839, Dickens’ lawyer gave him a turkey at Christmas time, four years before Scrooge would atone in part for past failings by making the same gift to the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol. (Turkey 38) The story was so influential that by 1861 Mrs. Beeton would declare that “a Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey.” (Turkey 38; Mrs. Beeton 506)

‘Tame,’ or domestic, turkeys had been shipped from England to Massachusetts Bay as early as 1629 and by 1636 and had become numerous enough in Cambridge to require regulation as a nuisance. (Wild Turkey 478-79) Nonetheless, this “importation of Central American turkeys into New England by way of Spain and England was a distinct case of coals to Newcastle. Turkeys, of larger size and different coloring than the type that had been domesticated in Central America, were among the ‘wild’ species that had been encouraged to increase and multiply in New England by Indian environmental management.” (Founding Food 161)

Theodore FtzGibbon considers the Central and North American breeds different enough to constitute separate species. (Western World 488)

Over time these two branches of the turkey family interbred, “at first by accident and increasingly by design. The hybrids tended to be larger, healthier, and more vigorous than their domestic, though not than their wild, parents.” (Founding Food 163) According to Sally Smith Booth, “housewives hunted eggs in the forests and the young chicks were later bred to domestic strains.” (Hung, Strung 95)


Eventually, however, the metaphorical ‘coals’ became the predominant genetic strain in virtually all domestic breeds. Those seventeenth century English interlopers, in particular the Norfolk Black and Norfolk Fawn, “served as a foundation strain for the long-established and famous North American varieties” of turkey, including the Black, Bourbon, Bronze, Narragansett, Red, Slate and White Holland. (Western World 488)

Epicures, including Brillat-Savarin (‘Tell me what you eat and.... ’), preferred the taste of wild turkey over either the Central American or hybrid domestic varieties. He bagged a wild bird outside of Hartford in 1794 and roasted it to the acclaim of his guests: “Very good! Exceedingly good! Oh, my dear Sir, what a glorious bit!” (Old New England 26-27, quoting Brillat-Savarin)

By then wild turkeys had been hunted nearly to extinction within New England; the species had been “decimated” in eastern Massachusetts as early as the 1640s (a tough era all around); in 1813 the last survivor in Connecticut was eliminated and the big birds had vanished even from forested western Massachusetts by 1851. (Giving Thanks 18; Founding Food 163) it was not until the ban on DDT and reforestation of farmland toward the end of the twentieth century that the wild turkey returned in force and triumph to the region. The Editor has spotted flocks throughout Connecticut, in central Massachusetts and even in coastal Rhode Island.

Yankees hunted turkeys for food, not sport; the earlier Puritan settlers never hunted anything but for food. How did they and their descendants cook the bird? Kathleen Fitzgerald and Keith Stavely are unequivocal. “The recipes for roast turkey found in New England cookbooks were all derived from standard English practice.” Amelia Simmons (1796) drew from Hannah Glasse, and Lydia Maria Child (1833) drew from Simmons. Gravy, based on the dripping from the bird that would be familiar to any twenty-first century Thanksgiving celebrant, was ubiquitous, but so were oyster, mustard and bread sauces. As Fitzgerald and Stavely point out, “subsequent turkey recipes exhibited only minor variation from the main themes drawn from English cooking that we already have described,” from Mrs. Glasse through Mrs. Simmons and “into the middle of the twentieth century and beyond.” (Founding Food 168)

According to Curtin and Oliver, Mrs. Simmons reflected the emergence at Thanksgiving of some distinctly American dishes for service alongside the traditional turkey, but the ones they identify, including apple, chicken, mince and pumpkin pies, sound distinctly English. (Giving Thanks 30) Today of course departures from the English theme, like southern cornbread dressing or lasagna, also make Thanksgiving appearances, but in the main when you sit down to table on this most American holiday, you are celebrating the foodways of Britain.

Sources:

Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London 1861)

Sally Smith Booth, Hung, Strung, & Potted: A history of eating habits in Colonial America (New York 1971)

Catharine Brown & Laura Mason, Traditional Foods of Britain: An Inventory (Totnes, Devon 1999)

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston 1833)

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York 1983)

Kathleen Curtin & Sandra Oliver, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie (New York 2005)

Kathleen Fitzgerald & Keith Stavely, Founding Food: the Story of New England Cooking (Chapel Hill 2004)

Theodora Fitzgibbon, The Food of the Western World (London 1976)

E. V. Mitchell, It’s an Old New England Custom (New York 1946)