Why did turkey prove so popular in Europe and among European settlers? There are two main theories, one having to do with familiarity and the other with class. As David Gentilcore observed in Food and Health in Early Modern Europe, turkeys received an uncomplicated welcome in Europe that was not offered, for example, to corn or tomatoes. Part of the reason for that, he argued, was that Europeans knew what to do with the bird’s meat: “If the new food could be viewed as a substitute for another food, then its chances of meeting with approbation were higher.”
The turkey’s particular pattern of adoption, others contend, was related to social status as well. Meat consumption was a prominent social marker in early modern Europe, and turkey, when it entered the continent, occupied a unique position. It was the ultimate in luxury meat, being an exotic new food from conquered lands (see: special orders from King Ferdinand). But it was also a member of the poultry group—one of the few land meats non-nobles ever got to eat, since fowl could be relatively easily kept for their eggs and didn’t qualify as game. Turkey didn’t make it to the common man immediately: at first, it was so rare and precious that sumptuary laws in Venice, according to Gentilcore, actually “prohibited the eating of turkeys and partridges at the same meal: the inference being that one rare bird at a time ought to be enough. Similar legislation had been passed in England in 1541.”
But by the 19th century, turkey was established and cheap enough to become the standard bourgeois Christmas bird in England. Turkeys popped up, according to the museum curator Susan Rossi-Wilcox, in Charles Dickens’s wife’s recipes and the novelist’s notes about holiday gifts.
In the process, distinct culinary traditions developed in different countries: England and North America embraced roast-turkey versions, often with bread-based stuffings or oyster sauce. New England, according to Fitzgerald and Stavely, had a Thanksgiving tradition of turkey accompanied by chicken pie, a meaty “supplement.” In France, François Pierre la Varenne included a recipe for turkey stuffed with truffles, and one for turkey stuffed with raspberries, in his Le Cuisinier François, considered one of the foundational works of French cuisine. (Dinde truffée, despite its exorbitant cost, or perhaps because of it, took off. The raspberry idea less so.) In Spain, turkeys got doused with brandy. The famed food researcher and cookbook author Claudia Roden has even unearthed one “country house” tradition of feeding the turkeys brandy while they were still alive—probably not worth trying with New England’s new crop of wild birds, who are pretty boisterous and difficult when stone-cold sober. Europeans also brought turkeys with them to their later colonial expeditions. The scholar Cynthia Chou has pointed to one recollection of turkeys on elite menus in 19th-century British Singapore, along with curries and “tropical fruits.”