Turkey: A Love Story

Actually, the title of the book I’ve been reading this week is The Turkey : An American Story (University of Illinois Press, 2006), by Andrew F. Smith.


November 26, 2008

Actually, the title of the book I’ve been reading this week is The Turkey : An American Story (University of Illinois Press, 2006), by Andrew F. Smith. I picked it up expecting a narrative history along the lines of Cod, Salt, The Potato, The True History of Chocolate, Spice, or A History of the World in Six Glasses.

There’s some of that here; “Part 1, The History of the Turkey,” includes ten chapters with titles such as “The Globe-Trotting Turkey; or, How the Turkey Conquered Europe.” But chapters are subdivided into sections—Chapter 5 (“The Well-Dressed Turkey ; or, How the Turkey Trotted Onto America’s Table”) contains subheadings from “Tobacco Turkeys” to “Turkey Eggs” to “The Christmas Turkey Dinner”—and the book feels more like a common reader put together by someone who really loves the lore.

Smith, who teaches culinary history and food writing at the New School and serves as editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America, writes, “My fondest childhood food memories relate to the traditional Thanksgiving feast and its centerpiece, the turkey…. These memories were surely the beginning of my lifelong fascination with the turkey, a fascination that persists decades after these extended family Thanksgiving celebrations receded into memory. [N]ow, as a food historian, I am concerned with what the turkey tells us about larger social, historical, cultural, and culinary issues and also what it reveals about what it means to be an American.”

He gives a nod to other sourcebooks and cultural histories, including Karen Davis’s More Than a Meal : The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality (2001) and Sabine Eiche’s Presenting the Turkey : The Fabulous Story of a Flamboyant and Flavourful Bird (2004), and a quarter of Smith's book is 48 pages of notes, bibliography, and resources listed at the end.

Still there’s solid writing throughout and interesting facts including the debunking of commonly-cherished myths that Smith calls “fakelore”:

Despite repeated stories to the contrary, the frequently cited “First Thanksgiving” dinner never happened—at least not the way…described in textbooks and popular magazines. Benjamin Franklin did not propose that the turkey be America’s national emblem. Free-range and organic turkeys may or may not be more flavorful than frozen turkeys purchased in supermarkets. [And] a person would be physically incapable of eating the amount of turkey required to induce [drowsiness caused by tryptophans].

He goes into each of these, point-by-point, in Part 1. But my favorite part of the book is “Part 2: Historical Recipes,” which date from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. I don’t know why old recipes are so evocative, since many of the ingredients are unknown to me or difficult to get, the processes laborious beyond belief, and the results, quite honestly, often nothing I’d want to eat. But they read like a poetry of lost specifics, in which you learn old words and ways to boil, bone, braise, devil, hash, jelly, pot, roast, sauce, steam, stew, and stuff a turkey. There are (sort of) instructions for making turkey croquettes, cutlets, galatine, gravy, gumbo, pie, ragoût, salads (including “flesh sallet of a capon or turkey”), sandwiches, sausage, and soups. Read here about turkey a la daube, escalloped, fricasseed, en pain, with Cèpes, en brochette, and a la Jules Verne. It's all just plain fun, especially this time of year.

The author of one of the listed recipes, for instance, Hannah Glasse, who in 1747 self-published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, writes of a “Yorkshire Christmas-Pye” made with a bushel of flour, four pounds of butter, and a boned “Turkey, a Goose, a Fowl, a Partridge, and a Pigeon,” all nestled one in the next. Add mace, nutmegs, cloves, black pepper, and salt. Surround the turkey with a jointed hare and “Woodcock, more Game, and what Sort of Wild fowl you can get.” The pies bake four hours in a very hot oven and should emerge with “Walls…well built” so they can be “sent to London in a Box as Presents….”

It’s not a particularly practical recipe for our age, but then there’s little that’s practical about the American Thanksgiving, which is one of its pleasures. After all, the feast centers on a bird with a six-foot wingspan. Thanksgiving is about abundance, freedom from want, even as the earth tilts from the sun and cold sets in. The symbol of the cornucopia, horn of plenty, extends far beyond the idea of a bountiful harvest to plenty of family, friends, food, drink, happiness, and warmth itself.

We wish you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving.


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