The Greatest Turkey Story Ever Told

November 20, 2018

With Thanksgiving approaching my mind wanders to a particular section of The Physiology of Taste (published 1825), in which its author, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, lays out his many thoughts concerning turkey. He shares them with his typical blend of casual, aphoristic observations and florid discursiveness: 

“When the ploughman and the vine-dresser make merry on long winter evenings, what do we see roasting before a fire in the kitchen, the humble kitchen that is also a dining room? A turkey. When the hard working artisan invites his friends to celebrate a rare and precious holiday, what dish will surely crown the feast? A turkey, stuffed with sausage meat or Lyon chestnuts.”

Or, “I have reason to believe that from the beginning of November to the end of February the daily consumption of truffled turkeys in Paris is three hundred, giving a total for the whole period of thirty-six thousand turkeys.”

But the heart of the chapter is his description of hunting for wild turkey. He sets off with his friend Mr. King, “an odd sort of sportsman” enthusiastic but prone to regret. “Always when he had killed his bird, he used to look upon himself as a murderer and give vent to elegies and moral reflections on the fate of the victim; after which he would repeat the performance.”

The journey takes them to the farm of Mr. Bulow, situated in the primeval forest outside of Hartford, Connecticut. After a meal of mutton, corned beef, stewed goose, vegetables, and cider “so excellent that I could have gone on drinking it forever” and a good night’s sleep, they set off in pursuit of their quarry.

The hunt is a success, at least for the author. (“None but the sportsman can understand the satisfaction of that perfect shot. I took the glorious bird and turned him this way and that, feasting my eyes upon him, for a full quarter of an hour.”) Mr. King swears he has also hit a bird, but despite hours of searching they can find no sign of it, and so they are forced to return to the farm with only the one.

Reading over this today it strikes me that the chapter is largely a long joke, though the punchline is subtle enough that it’s easy to miss. Brillat-Savarin describes the wholesomeness and beauty of the land and the farm at length, and as the story draws to a close he gives Mr. Bulow this stirring speech:

“If there is a happy man under heaven, my dear sir, you see that man in me; everything around you, and that you have seen in my house, comes entirely from my own property. These stockings were knitted by my daughters; my animals provide me with shoes, clothing, and meat, and for the rest of my plain but ample fair I need not go beyond my garden and my farmyard; and which is greatly to the credit of our government, Connecticut holds thousands of farmers as happily placed as I am, and whose doors, like mine, are never locked.

“The taxes are almost nothing, and so long as they are paid we can sleep in peace. Congress does all in its power to help our budding industry; agents traverse every acre of the land to purchase what we have to sell; and I have now enough money laid by for some time to come, having recently sold a quantity of flour at twenty-four dollars the ton, which is three times the price I have been accustomed to ask hitherto.

“All this comes from our hard-won liberty, and the sound laws by which that liberty is assured. I am my own master, and you will not be surprised to learn that the sound of the drum is never heard here, and that except upon the fourth of July, the glorious anniversary of our independence, neither soldiers, uniforms, nor bayonets are ever to be seen.”

The author continues, “During the whole of our homeward journey I was absorbed in deep reflection: it will perhaps be thought that my mind was full of Mr. Bulow’s parting speech, but in fact the subject of my thoughts was altogether different; I was thinking of how I would cook my turkey, and I was worried by the fear lest Hartford should be unable to furnish all my wants; for I wished to raise a trophy worthy of the spoil.”

This is a good message for all of us to remember as we gather for Thanksgiving. Politics and football and work and plenty of other things have there places, but they should not distract from the singular pleasure of sharing a truly special meal with family and friends. I hope that as you gather this Thursday, “until the very last morsel is consumed, come cries of, ‘Very good!’ ‘Exceedingly good!’ ‘Oh dear sir, what a glorious bit!’”

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