The wild turkey was indigenous to the Americas and was first domesticated around two thousand years ago in central Mesoamerica. All the modern varieties of turkey originate from the turkeys found in Mexico.
The man credited with introducing the turkey to England is William Strickland. On an early voyage to America in 1526 he acquired six birds from Native Americans and upon his arrival at Bristol promptly sold them at tuppence each. Quickly realising that there was a ready market for this exotic delicacy, he began importing turkeys in earnest, earning enough money to build himself a stately home in Boynton, near Bridlington.
Whether he was really the first is far from clear, but Strickland certainly made a big thing about his association with the bird. In 1550 he incorporated the turkey into his coat-of-arms, the drawing of which, held at the College of Arms in London, may be the earliest depiction of the bird in Europe. The village church at which he is buried is a homage to the turkey, the bird appearing in stone sculptures on the walls, stained glass windows and even replacing the traditional eagle on the lectern.
Thanks in no small part to the Tudor equivalent of Bernard Matthews, the English developed a taste for the turkey. While the Venetian patricians passed sumptuary laws in 1557 restricting consumption of turkey flesh to the nobility, it was cash rather than class that defined who could eat turkey meat in England, their price set by law in London’s markets from 1555. So widespread were turkeys that in 1560 a law was passed banning birds bred for slaughter from roaming the streets of London.
By 1573 the turkey had found its place on the festive menu, Thomas Tusser noting that the perfect host at Christmas would offer “good bread and good drinke…brawn pudding and souse and good mustarde withal. Biefe, mutton and porke, shred pyes of the best, pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest”. Farming manuals of the time included instructions on rearing turkeys, which were smaller than the wild indigenous birds of the Americas, a point noted by William Wood in his New England’s Prospect (1634).
Cookery books from the late 16th century began to include recipes for turkeys. A Booke of Cookrye from 1584 instructed its readers to “cleve your Turkye foule on the back, and bruse al the bones. Season it with pepper groce beaten and salt, and put into good store of Butter, he must have five houres baking”. Gervase Markham, writing in 1623, recommended roasting with the pinions still attached.
Two major problems inhibited the universal adoption of the turkey as festive fare: cost and transportation. While, by 1720, 250,000 turkeys were being reared in Norfolk, getting them to consumers involved walking them from the farms to the markets, journeys that could take weeks and involved the farmers setting up impromptu camps each night by the side of the roads. Mrs Beeton wrote of turkeys being driven all the way from Norfolk to London, with their feet dipped in tar to prevent them getting sore.
The cost of transportation meant that turkeys were out of the reach of all but the well-to-do, a meat to aspire to, while ordinary folk made do with beef, a strong favourite in the North, capons, or goose. The arrival of the railways, improvements in refrigeration, and the sentimentalisation of Christmas saw a rise in the turkey’s stock in the mid-19th century.
Scrooge’s gift of a turkey to Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), Queen Victoria sitting down to her first roast turkey on Christmas Day 1851, and the realisation that the fowl provided more meat for the large families seated around the dining table may have cooked the goose, but it took another century for the turkey to become truly affordable.
Even in the 1930s, a turkey cost the equivalent of a week’s wages, and the thriftier amongst the population would subscribe to savings clubs to ensure that when the time came, they had enough to pay for their festive bird. It was not until after the Second World War that improvements in farming efficiency brought the price down to a level that was affordable to most. Since then, the turkey has not looked back.
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