The Transatlantic Travels of an American Bird

Turkeys are the centerpieces of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner and are as American as apple pie and Coca-Cola. This bird appeared in the Americas around one million years ago before arriving in Europe, becoming a favorite at the royal court of Louis XIV and across the French kingdom!
© Kirk Thornton

Turkeys were long a source of confusion for Europeans. Christopher Columbus, who discovered the species in 1502, named them gallinas de la tierra, Spanish for “land chickens.” In his letters, the conquistador Hernán Cortés described chickens that were “as big as peacocks.” This conflation persists in the scientific name for the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, from the Latin terms gallo (rooster) and pavo (peacock), and Meleager, a hero in Greek mythology associated with the colors red and black. Meanwhile, when the cartoon Gauls Asterix and Obelix accidentally landed in North America in the volume The Great Crossing, they nick-named these strange birds “gobblers”!

Asterix and Obelix discover America's favorite bird. © Goscinny-Uderzo/Hachette

The American fowl arrived in Europe aboard Spanish galleons in the early 16th century. Adopted as a rare and exotic food, turkey soon outshone peacock at prestigious dinners and delighted foodies with its tender, refined, white flesh. In 1534, writer François Rabelais included a poule d’Inde (literally “a chicken from India,” which is how turkey got the name dinde in French) on the menu of a feast he described in his novel Gargantua. Fifteen years later, 66 turkeys were served at a banquet organized by the city of Paris to celebrate the coronation of Queen Catherine de’ Medici.

In an effort to meet growing demand, Marguerite d’Angoulême started a poultry farm at her Château d’Alençon. Domestic turkeys were also bred at Versailles and Louis XIV, who adored them, gravely entrusted their care to a “turkey captain”! The Grand Siècle then saw turkey appear in recipe books. In The French Cook, which heralded a shift from medieval to modern cooking in 1651, chef La Varenne prepared poulet d’Inde in stews, casseroles, served with raspberries, and stuffed with mushrooms, truffles, artichoke hearts, squabs, sweetbread, and ram kidneys!

Turkey also influenced another French gourmet by the name of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. After his exile in the United States during the Revolution, this lawyer and politician went on to write The Physiology of Taste (1825), considered to be the first work of culinary literature. (We also have him to thank for the expression, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”) In his book, he describes a coq d’Inde hunt in Connecticut and humbly accepts that “the turkey is certainly one of the most glorious present made by the New World to the Old.” He then refers to two dishes that, two centuries on, are still mainstays of French Christmas dinners: turkey stuffed with chestnuts and turkey with truffles!

"To roast a turkey": Julia Child on the set of her cooking show, The French Chef, in September 1971. © Paul Child/Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

France is now the world’s third leading producer of turkeys after the United States and Germany. What’s more – as tradition dictates – French turkey dishes have inspired Americans foodies. Martha Stewart stuffed her Thanksgiving turkey with chestnuts and celery, while triple Michelin-star chef Daniel Humm, who heads the Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York, prepares it with black truffles, brioche, and foie gras. There is even a recipe for young turkey with truffles in the extravagant and autobiographical Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Gertrude Stein’s partner in Paris, published in 1954. The ingredients include three pounds of melted pork fat, almost two pounds of whole truffles, and one bay leaf!

Article published in the November 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.