November 27, 2010

The Thanksgiving Turkey

In late August, I discovered a chapter on peacock in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, specifically pertaining to how the bird was prepared for feast during the Renaissance.  After waiting several months, not knowing where this little bit of trivia belonged, I finally decided that I would post it on Thanksgiving.

The original recipe is found in The Art of Cookery, written around 1450 by the Italian chef, Maestro Martino of Como.  In his book, Martino details an elaborate preparation intended for peacock, in which the rather tough and tasteless bird is carefully skinned (leaving the feathers intact), roasted, and then wrapped back up in its own plumage prior to presentation.  To prevent decay, the skin is cured with salts and spices, and for an extra-special feast, the roast might be gilded with edible gold leaf.

The chapter goes on to describe how to make the peacock stand upright, namely through the use of iron bars inserted into its body.  Then it suggests that the bird be attached to a clockwork mechanism, enabling it to run along the tabletop. The final touch–as if this all weren't enough–is a ball of wool soaked in aquavit, stuffed into the bird's beak, and set aflame, so that as the lifeless piece of poultry is hurled down the length of the buffet, it breathes fire.  This chapter in Martino's book was aptly titled, "How to dress a peacock with all its feathers, so that when cooked, it appears to be alive and spews fire from its beak."

The thought of wrapping any roast in its original skin is an unsavory idea, though when you think about it, the inherent eccentricity of the process does not seem that much more extreme than cramming handfuls of seasoned breadcrumbs up a turkey's backside.  We like to ignore the silliness of our traditions, choosing instead to focus our attention on the spectacle of the Norman Rockwell Turkey, perfectly golden and crisp (even if it does turn out a bit dry and generally lacking in flavor, as turkeys often do) and every year we scramble to the markets to order the perfect piece of poultry–Butterball, kosher, free-range, or otherwise–weeks ahead of time, in order to guarantee a hopefully flawless Thanksgiving meal.

I wonder when the idea of the perfect Thanksgiving came into fruition.  Beautiful in its abundance, the holiday table is adorned with plates of jewel-colored cranberry, green vegetables lined up in casserole dishes, fluffy white potatoes billowing from their crocks, and thick, flavorful gravy that belongs on just about anything.  Then there's the turkey centerpiece–a prodigious hunk of bird, plated alongside decorative sprigs of rosemary and sage.  At its best, Thanksgiving is a cultural tradition culminating in feast, though at its worst, it's a day dedicated to the preparation of an inordinate amount of food, at least one bout of indigestion, and a few kitchen disasters. Maybe even an explosion or two.

The tradition of serving turkey during the holiday is partially rooted in Governor William Bradford's, "History of Plymouth Plantation," written about twenty years after the First Thanksgiving in 1621.  The document, which suggests that turkey served as a large component of the meal, disappeared during the Revolutionary War only to be rediscovered circa 1854.  Had this document never surfaced, would the Thanksgiving tradition of eating turkeys still hold up, or would we be eating shellfish, waterfowl, and venison instead?  Likewise, if Benjamin Franklin had gotten his way and elected the turkey as the country's official bird, perhaps we'd feel a tad bit guilty at the thought of devouring over 45 million of them each November.  After all, no one would dream of eating an eagle.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the Thanksgiving tradition, and being that it's the year's most food-centric holiday, I'll even admit that I look forward to it.  I do think, however, that next year I might forgo the turkey in favor of a few cornish hens.

(This year, not surprisingly, I did not bother to photograph my turkey.  I did however take a few shots of my sweet potato meringue tarts–spiked with molasses and perched in a walnut press-in crust–and red wine poached seckel pears, served with orange and cinnamon flavored syrup, ice cream, and candied kumquats.)


  1. I love your photo on tastespotting.. it looked like magical pies. It seems to be a great recipe as well... nice to find your blog!

  2. That picture of the pies. I can live seeing it all day!

  3. Fantastic and thorough post. it will be good if the author continues posting on this topic. One of the best blogs I have ever come across. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  4. Thanks so much! Really appreciate all the lovely comments.

  5. omg those tarts are the most precious things I've ever seen! And they sound amazing.

  6. Came across your beautiful tarts this morning -- a little late since this was from Thanksgiving :)
    gorgeous photo.