Behold — the turkey! 

An ancient custom still anchors the festive table

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The glorious fragrance wafting through the house as it roasts in the oven all afternoon. The sight of it, golden-brown in the equally golden light around the dinner table, skin glistening as it rests on the traditional platter, still whole, still turkey-like, drumsticks angled in one final salute to its hungry audience before facing its destiny.

Whether digging into that drumstick with sleeves rolled up or delicately cutting through razor-thin slices of soft white — and, hopefully, moist — breast meat with a just-right dollop of cranberry sauce on the fork, we can only furrow our brows and ponder for a minute; what on Earth would we do at Christmas without our Christmas turkey?

Buy a turkey roast, if you're only two or three for dinner. Buy a turkey and cran sandwich at the deli if it's your first Christmas away from home and you have to have a taste. For turkey has long been part of Canadian Christmases, at least for the colonizers smart enough to have made the choice and lucky enough to have survived, since they first arrived.

In a rather circuitous route, turkeys came to Canadian Thanksgiving and Christmas tables from Mexico, via Europe.

In Mexico, writes Reay Tannahill in her excellent book Food in History, turkeys and dogs were the only domesticated livestock at the time of the Spaniards' arrival. Dog was considered useful but inferior meat.

To whit, she quotes from the 16th century history of "things of New Spain" written by Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, who was part of the Catholic evangelization of New Spain: "The turkey meat was put on top and the dog underneath, to make it seem more."

First discovered by Cortes and his men in about 1520, the so-called "Indian chicken" made its way back to the Old World with amazing speed. By about 1523-24 the bird itself had made it to Europe, brought in via the agency of merchants in the Levant and, ironically, Turkey.

Not knowing how to pronounce the Mexican name, uexolotl, the English "solved the problem in the usual way" and called it "turkie cock." It started popping up not just on dinner tables but in heraldic arms as well.

In France it was known as coq d'Inde or "cock of India" — note, not the West Indies. People of India called it peru. As you can see, its popularity was unstoppable; people throughout the Old World found it as delicious and practical as we do.

Back here in North America, the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock were glad to see the turkey, native as it is to the Americas. The aboriginals called it furkee.

But this species is not the same as the one native to Central America and Mexico. The common or wild turkey, is native to North America. It frequents — or at least it used to — much of America's countryside, stopping for some unknown reason right at the 49th parallel. The wild male, called a gobbler or tom, grows to be over four feet long and up to 16 pounds, smaller than his now-industrially farmed, domesticated cousins but still a formidable-looking bird.

Unfortunately, like so many North American species, pure wild turkey stocks are nearly extinct. Most of the wild turkeys found today in carefully conserved areas are mixed with domesticated stock. But with some luck you can spot one in the wild not that far from Whistler as they still roam central Washington.

Central America is home to the other species of turkey, the ocellated turkey, which is smaller than the wild turkey of North America and the bird that first entered Europe.

According to Food: A Culinary History, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, one of the earliest accounts of a turkey being cooked for a European feast is of a banquet given by Catherine de' Medici at the bishopirc of Paris in 1549. On that festive occasion 70 "Indian chickens" were served along with seven "Indian roosters."

Turkeys, says Flandrin, were readily accepted from the moment they arrived in the Old World because large birds were already being served on aristocratic tables, including some we might find questionable today, such as cormorants, storks, cranes, swans, herons and peacocks.

Pilgrim Thanksgiving aside, it's still easy to see how these mighty birds came to grace our two most important Canadian feast days, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only are they decorative, delicious tasting and ideal for feeding many people at once, turkeys signify wealth, status and aristocracy.

This Christmas, Nesters Market at Whistler will sell around 500 turkeys bound for the feast table. Canadians, overall eat some 350 million pounds of turkey each year, most of it at Thanksgiving and Christmas — a shame, really, since it's such a healthy, tasty, reasonably priced meat and so easy to cook with any time of year.

While 99 per cent of these birds will be cooked traditionally — meaning stuffed and roasted in the oven — if you want to break out of the Christmas box, you might want to try an alternative to spice things up. Mexicans traditionally prepare their turkey with a fragrant molé sauce.

The Whole Chile Pepper Book has a recipe for same, as well as a mean tlaloc-chile stew (the Mayan god of rain and fertility was tlaloc, the turkey), and a superb smoked turkey dish with orange Cascabel chile sauce (see below).

However you have your turkey, enjoy! I hope it adds warmth and delight to your holiday festivities.

Smoked turkey with orange Cascabel sauce

Heat 1/2 cup of peanut oil then sauté for two minutes: 6 dried crushed Cascabel chiles (seeds and stems removed), 2 dried crushed red chiles, 4 cloves minced garlic, 2 tbsp. finely chopped onion, 2 tbsp. orange zest and 2 tsp. chopped fresh ginger. In a blender purée it all into a sauce. Add ground black pepper to taste. Split a 10-pound turkey in half. Brush it with the chile oil and marinate a few hours in the fridge. Place the turkey, breast side up on, a barbecue, no lid. Baste with oil every half hour until the turkey is done, about four hours. Serve with warmed tortillas and the chile sauce on the side.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has a 22-pounder in the freezer.


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