As Edith reminded us yesterday and as every scrap of electronic and paper media is likewise doing, this is Thanksgiving Week in America. No matter how culturally diverse the backgrounds of modern-day Americans may be, they’re all unified on this one day by one great thing: TURKEY.
People who don’t even like this noble fowl will still consume it by the truckload on Thursday, just as cooks who never cook turkeys any other time of the year will feel compelled to engage in Kitchen Battle with a frozen chunk of poultry three times the size of the family pet. (And if you’re only deciding to defrost that titanic bird today, it ain’t going be thawed to cook by Thursday.)
But when I began to poke around for a bit of turkey-lore for this blog, I discovered that this bird, so quintessentially American that Benjamin Franklin (a quintessential American himself) wanted it for the national bird, was so quickly embraced into English barnyards that by the time of most of the Wench’s books, Tom Turkey has ceased to be perceived as a Native American at all.
I’m going to quote at length here from one of my favorite historical food books, MARTHA WASHINGTON’S BOOK OF COKKERY transcribed by Karen Hess (Columbia University Press, c. 1985, 1991, and still available at Amazon. Despite a title that sounds like D.A.R. recopies for cherry pie, this is a book of family recopies from Elizabethan and Jacobean England, passed down through the generations, and enhanced with tremendous research and commentary by Ms. Hess. Definitely worth adding to your library!
Now, about those turkeys:
“Two quite different birds have been known as turkey in English. First was the guinea fowl, Nunuda, native to Africa and known to Aristotle and Pliny; curiously, it seems not to have been known in England until early in the sixteenth century. OED explains the name of turkey by its importation into England through “Turkish dominions.” (Just so, maize was called Turkey Corn.) Then, in 1518, the Conquistadores found in Mexico what we now call turkey, already domesticated by the Aztecs. It was immediately confused with the guinea fowl and called turkey. Linnaeus later compounded the confusion by given the ancient name Leleagris to the usurper, the American turkey.
“Sixteenth-century citations of turkey can be maddeningly frustrating; it is often difficult to know what certainty which bird is meant. . . .In FOOD & DRINK IN BRITAIN, C. Anne Wilson tells us that by 1555, the sale of turkeys was such that their price in the London market was officially fixed, along with those of other poultry; a turkey-cock cost six shillings that year, which seems to me a very high price.
“As always, cookbooks lagged behind usages. But in 1586, Thomas Dawson gives us an elaborate recipe for turkey that involved deboning it. By 1615, when Markham published THE ENGLISH HUS-WIFE, turkey is mentioned very nearly as frequently as chicken, and has its own recipes and sauces. So that for the Pilgrims, the turkey (albeit a different strain) had long been a familiar bird and must have been a welcome sight in that strange land that was America.”