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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 03 October 2007 19:00|
In 1794, a French lawyer with the extravagant name of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, recently exiled to the United States from his homeland by the revolutionary upheaval there, went with a friend to hunt turkey in Connecticut.
Brillat-Savarin was – in the stereotypical manner of French men -- an unabashed sensualist; so much so that, in the single book he wrote during his lifetime, entitled The Physiology of Taste, his opening statement is that humans possess at least six senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and physical desire.
His account of his turkey-hunting expedition, as related in his book, is therefore noticeably heavy on the physical details of the new world he was visiting. Upon arriving at the farm where he would be staying during the hunt, his attention immediately fixed itself upon the four farmer’s daughters – “BUXUM LASSES” – who were assigned to greet him and attend to his comfort. The second thing that struck his fancy was the natural splendour of the New England landscape. He noted, upon setting out on the hunt, that it was the first time in his life he had been in a virgin forest – “where the sound of the axe had never been heard” – and, momentarily forgetting the purpose of his excursion, “wandered through it with delight.”
Refocused on the task at hand by the exhortations of his friend, Brillat-Savarin spent the rest of the day killing some “pretty little grey partridges,” half a dozen grey squirrels (“highly thought of in that country”), and one turkey: a “superb winged creature” that he admired for “a good quarter-hour” before returning to the farm and the comforts of the fire, feast and friendly females that awaited him.
Brillat-Savarin’s account, however, is not simply a relation of the natural bounty of the United States. Being also – again like most upper-class French men of his period – an amateur philosopher and political analyst, he also included, for the edification of his readers, a speech made by his American host, exalting in his nation’s recently-won freedom from the oppressive grip of the British king and his imperial forces: “You see in me…a happy man…[E]verything around you and all that you have so far observed is a product of what I own….[T]his is the result of the liberty which we have fought for and founded on good laws. I am master in my own house…”
Brillat-Savarin, though, being a loyal monarchist, provided his readers with a sly commentary on the farmer’s ode to American liberty by subsequently relating how he spent his coach trip back to New York deep in thought: not on the merits of a pluralist democratic republic, but on how he should properly cook his turkey to best please his friends. He cared less for the liberal innovations of the new country than for the culinary pleasures he could extract from it. (Never the most modest of storytellers, Brillat-Savarin finished his turkey-hunting anecdote by recounting the reaction of his guests upon finishing their meal: “VERY GOOD! EXCEEDINGLY GOOD! OH! DEAR SIR, WHAT A GLORIOUS BIT!”)
The Frenchman’s short tale provides a good example of what the turkey has represented for most people around the world for most of the past four centuries. It is a symbol of the American national myth: the taming of the new land’s profuse wilderness in order to provide hard-won but bounteous wealth to the country’s population. The gleaming, golden-brown roasted bird, pulled from the oven and presented by the blonde, aproned American housewife to the gathering of smiling, scrubbed friends and family seated around the extravagantly decked-out table is one of the foremost symbols of American plenty, security and community togetherness.
This image, reproduced endlessly at Thanksgiving every year, both in real homes in the United States (and Canada, a month earlier), as well as in popular culture – films, TV shows, books -- across the continent and around the world, has established the turkey as an essentially American bird, consumed at the most American of all feasts. (Benjamin Franklin famously – though probably not entirely seriously – suggested that the turkey should be adopted as a national representative, rather than the eagle, and that the turkey should be depicted on the American flag.) However, this ultra-American image of the turkey is not entirely accurate; it is, in fact, quite a globe-trotting fowl.
The turkey, we learn in Raymond Sokolov’s highly informative Why We Eat What We Eat, was actually first domesticated and enjoyed as a meal by the Aztecs, who broiled it and served it with a hot chocolate sauce. (This dish is still available, known as mole poblano de guajalote.) It was not, furthermore, the English Pilgrims who were the first Europeans to taste turkey at the original Thanksgiving meal, after arriving at Plymouth in 1620 and being greeted by the local Natives: it was the Spanish conquistadors, who had landed on the shores of Mexico more than a century earlier.
What’s more, turkeys were well known, and much eaten, in Europe long before that famous first Thanksgiving. The Jesuit missionaries who accompanied the Spanish explorers in the 1500s brought turkeys over to Europe early in that century. The Jesuits raised the birds on farms in France and Spain, and they quickly gained popularity and spread around western Europe. (Brillat-Savarin noted that turkeys were even known colloquially as jesuits in certain localities during his time.) Raymond Sokolov asserts that “flocks were thriving on the lower Rhine by 1571.” In England, the bird is cited in an old rhyme, which states:
This would date its arrival into Henry VIII’s kingdom at around 1523 or ’24. Waverley Root writes in his fascinating collection of essays, Food, that, by 1570 – still half a century before the first Thanksgiving feast – turkey was being eaten by English farmers for Christmas dinner; and it was a popular enough creature to be referenced by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, written around 1600. (“Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him; how he jets under his advanced plumes!”) Thus, the Pilgrims in New England would certainly have been familiar with the turkey well before their arrival in America.
Even after the founding of the United States, the turkey still maintained a strong presence in European cuisine. Root further reports that, around the turn of the nineteenth century, France experienced a “wave of turkeymania.” The fad’s zenith was reached with the invention of “truffled turkeys”: the bird was stuffed with one or two dozen truffles and left overnight; the truffles would be discarded before serving the next day. (Root notes that modern gourmands would be more inclined to throw out the turkey.) Writing his book in 1825, Brillat-Savarin estimated that, on average, between the months of November and February of every year, there were 300 truffled turkeys eaten every day in Paris, providing an invaluable boost to the French economy.
These examples show that the turkey has had a much broader and more colourful history than simply as a symbol of American plenty. Even today, the Thanksgiving turkeys we North Americans will be consuming over the next few weeks are less truly American than people might assume. Raymond Sokolov informs us that many of the breeds eaten today – with names like Black Norfolk and White Holland -- are descended from birds that were first domesticated in Europe, primarily England.
Sokolov argues that the turkey’s long trek from Mexico and the rest of North America, across to Europe, and back across the Atlantic again, is something that should be celebrated. He writes:
Children should be taught that…the turkey carries a larger message [than New England and the Pilgrims], about a century of previous European contacts with the bird in Mexico and a long tradition of commercial breeding in Europe that gave us back our American bird much improved by its grand tour.
I, however, am not so sure about this supposition. The modern turkey has been so selectively bred as to produce an overabundance of tender white meat, to the detriment of the overall flavour of the bird. While prodigious in quantity, the meat is often quite tasteless, and requires a lot of extra help from sauces, stuffings and other flavourings to be truly palatable. (Jeffrey Steingarten, the prickly food writer for Vogue magazine – a man who is fussy even about the water he drinks – writes, “If turkeys were not a symbol, we would never eat as many of them as we do. Their meat is nearly always bland and stringy, and their shape is entirely incorrect.”)
My wish is that we could return turkeys to the state in which that over-indulged sensualist Brillat-Savarin enjoyed them so much. The French lawyer, having tasted both the domesticated European and wild American varieties, found the latter choice the vastly superior one. For me, as with Brillat-Savarin and Jeffrey Steingarten, the ritual of gross over-consumption we so greatly treasure at Thanksgiving has been spoiled by its twinning with the ritual of gross over-standardization in the production of food. As an advertisement and plea for a return to the authenticity of the pre-domesticated bird, I close with Brillat-Savarin’s endnote to his chapter on turkey:
The American Dream of personal economic freedom tempered by a strong spirit of community has turned out to be much more conflicted and complicated than its first, pioneer pursuers ever imagined. Perhaps if, in this one area of raising and eating turkey, we could turn back the clock against the most egregious crimes of over-production, standardization and manipulation of a naturally-occurring product, we – even up here in cynical, suspicious-of-all-things-American Canada – would be able to taste just a little bit of that original Dream.