Celebrating the Spring Holidays

Why do we eat turkey for Christmas (and Thanksgiving)? | BBC Ideas

Why do we eat turkey for Christmas (and Thanksgiving)? | BBC Ideas

What would a British Christmas dinner
be without roast turkey? Well it would still
be Christmas dinner. Turkey’s dominance of our festive
table is comparatively recent, and for much of the last 500 years,
beef was the meat of choice. Turkeys are native
to central America where they were domesticated
around 200BC By the time Columbus
and his fellow explorers started to discover the
delights of indigenous foods they were eaten far beyond
their original pecking grounds, and had spread to North America
and the Caribbean. From there, the spread
of turkey was spectacular. By 1511, every ship leaving
the Americas for Spain was ordered to bring back
five breeding pairs. By the 1530s, they were
being farmed in France. And in England in 1541
they were restricted by law, along with cranes and swans, to only
one such bird being served per feast. It’s not clear exactly where
the British got turkeys from. They were imported from America, but they also came in via Turkey,
hence the name. They were large, versatile and most
importantly visually impressive. After all, another competitor
was the peacock. Turkeys apparently taste better. A popular way to serve them
was in a raised pie with the tail, wings and head
and neck cooked onto skewers and put back in the pie. Resplendently gazing back
at the would-be diner. Turkeys were not just for Christmas, they were eaten
throughout the winter. Fowl was at its best
from September to March. Inevitably a big, juicy,
expensive bird in season in December became
associated with the feasting which went on for 12 days
from the 25th. By the 17th Century turkey was well established
as one of the key Christmas meats. In America, the early settlers
were saved from starvation by Native Americans
who shared their food. In 1621, the first recorded
Thanksgiving feast took place. Turkey was eaten, and it became an established part of
the various Thanksgiving celebrations which were held over
the next 200 years. Later, Thanksgiving was declared
a national holiday with turkey at centre stage. By the 19th Century in Britain, turkey was very much
still a Christmas dish, but not the main one. If you were rich, you had
lots of other meats, and beef was still
the mainstay. If you were poor,
turkey was unaffordable. You might have
a cheaper goose instead. That said, in 1861, the quintessential middle-class
writer and sometime plagiarist, Isabella Beeton, declared that… Things didn’t really change until the
second half of the 20th Century when, after two world wars
and a depression, meals were rather smaller,
even for the rich, and feasts centred
on one meaty roast. In the 1950s, America cast a
glamourous pall over British food, and as we greedily embraced images
of golden Thanksgiving turkeys, we turned to them more and more
for our own festive fare. Even if your oven was
too small, help was at hand. Well into the 60s, the local bakers
would open on Christmas morning, their ovens ready
for the locals’ Christmas roast. Now our image of the ideal Christmas
dinner is focussed on the turkey, but there are voices of dissent… They whisper.
And they may have a point. After all, turkey can
apparently be a lovely thing, but if we really liked it wouldn’t we
cook it more than once a year?

Reader Comments

  1. Very late, but wrong: the turkey that graces the table was domesticated in MEXICO. Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo. Domesticated by the Aztecs. And also, the bird in general is native to North America; they live wild in the USA and Canada. The OCELLATED turkey is native to Central America.

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