Why are we gobbling up turkeys?

I grew up on Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, published in 1898, was one of my favourites.

“Don’t know about you, Sharon, but I don’t fancy Christmas”

The story is about a thief who steals the eponymous gem and hides it in the crop of a Christmas goose. The goose is then bought by a member of the Goose Club… and so forth.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Conan Doyle didn’t make up the Goose Club. It was set up in Victorian times to help poor people save up for their Christmas bird, which emphatically was goose, not turkey.

Turkeys first appeared in Britain in the 16th century, as an American novelty, but they were popularised much later, courtesy of Dickens whose Scrooge sent out for one. Yet only after the Second World War did they become standard Christmas fare in the UK, mainly under the influence of Hollywood films and other things American.

The question is, why? True, turkeys are now mass-produced and are consequently much cheaper than geese. But seriously now: if a poor Victorian could save up for his Christmas treat, surely so can just about anyone in a modern, more affluent Britain?

I appreciate that one goose won’t feed a large family, although bulking up on other things can solve that problem. Still, a fat goose can stretch for six, and a fatter one for eight. How many of us have more people sitting at the table after the Queen’s speech? Especially now, at Covid time?

The salient difference between goose and turkey, other than their size, is that the former is delicious and the latter tastes like Styrofoam would if people ate it. In fact, if price is the main consideration, perhaps they should – Styrofoam won’t set you back as much as even a turkey will.

I haven’t staged the experiment myself, but I suspect that, if you cook a nice Styrofoam brick like a turkey, brining it with salt, fruit and spices for days and then slow-roasting it for hours, it’ll taste just like turkey.

Nor far from our place in France there’s a farm where they can custom-rear a small bronze turkey for you, and a good cook can make it palatable. But even a combination of Auguste Escoffier, Michel Roux and Raymond Blanc couldn’t make it taste as good as a goose roasted with some tart fruit by an average home cook.

And have you ever tried roasting potatoes in turkey fat? Don’t lie to me; you haven’t – there is no turkey fat. However, any goose will yield at least a pint of the delicious stuff halfway through cooking time, and if you’ve never roasted spuds in it, you haven’t lived.

So let me repeat the question, why? Why this obsession with a dry, tasteless bird that’s barely edible at its best and gives Styrofoam a good run for its money at its average?

One can understand why Americans like it. After all turkeys have a sacramental significance there, having provided a major source of sustenance for the first settlers. Hence Americans eat them at Thanksgiving and, by force of inertia, at Christmas as well. But we aren’t Americans, are we?

Well, yes and no. The ‘no’ part is self-evident, but the ‘yes’ requires some explanation. Which is that America exerts a gravitational cultural pull for proletarians of the world, who sense she is one country where their values (otherwise known as the American Dream) hold sway uncontested.

Hence, the more proletarianised a country, the more affectionate she’ll be towards the badges of Americanism, such as McDonald’s, Coca Cola, hot dogs – and turkey at Christmas. The French, for example, prefer different Christmas foods, and Italians welcomed McDonald’s only a few years ago. That means they are still ahead of us in trying to preserve some vestiges of their own tradition, although they too are slipping.

Just this morning I passed several American cars parked in a rather upmarket London street. One of them was a Mustang 5.0, the American muscle car par excellence. Now, who in his right mind would buy that abomination when he could buy, say, a BMW M3 for the same money?

After all, the BMW is infinitely superior in just about every meaningful specification. Except one: it isn’t American. Therefore it lacks the cachet of Route 66, a pack of Camels rolled into a T-shirt sleeve, baseball caps worn backwards – the whole enchilada, as young Britons have begun to say.

When a former colleague of mine rebuked his 12-year-old son for something or other, the boy replied: “Don’t make a federal case out of it.” Where did he learn that phrase, considering that we have no federal courts in the UK?

The usual explanation centres around American films, acting as the vanguard of cultural imperialism. But that’s a facile explanation: after all, Americans don’t force anyone to watch those films, drink that mucky Coke, eat Mickey D burgers made out of God knows what – or gobble up turkeys at Christmas.

Britons aren’t being raped. They are putting out consensually, and that act of cultural surrender demands an explanation. You now know mine.

9 thoughts on “Why are we gobbling up turkeys?”

  1. Ah! Mr B!

    First Laphroaig whisky and now Christmas goose! (we must get together over the festive season sometime!)

    I’ve always sworn by it. I do the Delia version with a forcemeat stuffing in the neck and prunes, apples, onions and Armagnac in the cavity. It is the most luxurious roast of them all – and you can do a confit with the leftovers!

    My problem now, since moving to Galicia, is that I can’t get hold of one for love or money. The tradition here is similar to the Réveillon in France with regards timing, but instead of oysters, fois gras and pain d’épices, it’s clams, prawns and salt cod.

    My mother-in-law has offered to buy a gosling to raise for next year but it’s bad enough when she dispatches the cockerels that I’ve become friends with, and named, and seen raised from little balls of fluff (the females get a stay as they supply us with our eggs, although they’re all destined for the freezer eventually).

    Salt cod is not the same at all – although still better than turkey. I shall keep working on it.

    1. I have a rather large bird on order, and there only two of us. So, if you can make your way to London, I could save you from salt cod. However, my warmest recollections of Galicia involve those tiny, worm-like eels sauteed in ramekins (I remember what they are called in Spanish, but don’t want to shame myself by getting the spelling wrong). And speaking of Laphroaig, recently I upgraded to Lagavulin, also from the Isle of Isla, but the old love is still there, waiting for this upstart to run its course.

      1. Ah! You mean gulas (same root as the French and Catalan ‘anguiles’ and the Spanish ‘anguilas’). Most gulas are manufactured because the real deal (juvenile eels returning from their birthplace in the Sargasso sea) are enormously expensive and also rather tasteless!

        The current fashion for arbitrary tyranny and its restrictions on the formerly unalienable right to travel means that I cannot accept your generous offer – the trip would have been well worth it though, for the company as well as the goose!

        A merry Christmas to you and Penelope.

        1. And a very merry Christmas to you too. I’ll be thinking of you when tucking into that goose, washing it down with champagne, which cuts the fat nicely. But in my recollection those gulas are far from tasteless: we had them sauteed in olive oil, garlic and parsley (avoiding these ingredients must be against the law in Spain). They were delicious.

  2. Sometimes, I think we colonized the world in more ways than one. KFCs in Barcelona, Burger King in Basingstoke and Fords all over Spain. Consumerism is a sorry export we gave to you all and we are the worse for it. European culture has suffered and for myself, I am sorry that this happened. Have a blessed Christmas, Mr. Boot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.