Benjamin Franklin had wanted the turkey to sit on America's seal, but instead it ended up sitting on our Thanksgiving dinner table. That part of the turkey's history most Americans know. Most don't know that centuries earlier the turkey had enjoyed a period of fame and glory on the other side of the Atlantic. The first American turkeys to strut on European soil had been sent from the West Indies to Seville in 1511 by order of King Ferdinand of Spain. Renaissance Europeans were both ecstatic and apprehensive about this bizarre creature. Initially they considered it a costly curiosity, an exotic gift for princes and popes. Eventually the turkey replaced the peacock as the most spectacular dish at grand banquets. Though diners loved the turkey, farmers deplored it, complaining that it had the appetite of a packhorse and less wits and stamina than the common chicken. Presenting the Turkey traces the bird's reception and impact in the Old World, drawing on the accounts of such contemporary authorities as cooks, farmers, courtiers, and naturalists. It examines how the turkey's outrageous behaviour inspired colourful expressions to describe aspects of human behaviour, and presents over sixty works of art that reveal the changing role that the turkey has played in our lives from the Renaissance to the present. The book concludes with poems, fables, and selections of prose that turn the spotlight on the turkey.
Excerpt from review in Gastronomica, Summer 2006, p.104, by Andrew F. Smith, editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America:
In this delightful book art historian Sabine Eiche traces the fascinating history of the turkey, which originated in North America. [.]
Three problems confront anyone writing about the history of the turkey. The first is the plethora of myths and "fakelore" surrounding the bird. The second is the daunting quantity of information available about the turkey [.]. The third problem is that a massive work on the subject already exists: Arlie William Shorger's The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication, published in 1966 [.]. It would be difficult for anyone else to address this vast subject without ending up as simply a footnote to Shorger.
Eiche has successfully navigated these potential pitfalls. She carefully avoids repetition of turkey myths so common in the culinary literature and concentrates on the turkey's introduction and influence in Europe, tracing its advent through art - drawings, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, maps, and, more recently, cartoons. Shorger mainly focused on the wild turkey in America and did not deal in depth with the turkey in artistic works, so Eiche's contribution fills crucial gaps. Of particular importance are the references to the turkey in Italy as early as 1521, which clearly demonstrate the early introduction and adoption of this American food into Europe. Eiche also includes a wonderful chapter on turkey language that includes explanations for how the turkey acquired its name and how this bird has enriched our language with colloquialisms. She tells the turkey's story in an engaging way and includes sixty-five unusual illustrations, many of which have not been previously published. Eiche ends her book with an anthology of literary references, along with some examples of turkey-themed poetry.
All in all, this is a delightful book, highly recommended for those interested in the history of America's unofficial national bird, in how new-world foods were adopted in Europe, and in the depictions of food in art.
This page last updated: November 25, 2011.