Charles Dickens and Turkeys

It seems impossible, but the fact is that Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the United States until well into the nineteenth century. The Puritan settlers in New England did not celebrate any holiday that was not specifically sanctioned by the bible. Christmas is not a biblical holiday, and so Christmas was a workday. Even in the 1830’s, New England diaries show that Christmas was just another day. (Saltwater Foodways, Sandy Oliver, 1995)

When Christmas finally came to America in the mid-nineteenth century, the version of the European Christmas that arrived was primarily the one being celebrated in Victorian England. While turkey had a place in the English Christmas feast as early as the later part of the 16th century, by the 1850’s turkey had assumed the central place that it holds in America for the Thanksgiving table. I suspect, in fact, that our exclusive focus on turkey for the Thanksgiving table may owe something to the English Christmas.

Here is how Mrs. Beeton, the most popular English cookbook author of the mid-nineteenth century writes about the Christmas Turkey in Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book, 1868.

A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner, with the middle-class of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey; and we can hardly imagine an object of greater envy than that presented by a respected portly pate families carving, at the season devoted to good cheer and genial charity, his own fat turkey, and carving it well. The only art consists, as in the carving of the goose, of getting from the breast as many fine slices as possible; and all must have remarked the great difference in the large number of people a good slicer will find slices for, and the comparatively few a bad carver will succeed in serving.

Mrs. Beeton’s roasting recipe calls for a small, moderate, or large bird. Her moderate bird is ten pounds and roasts in two hours. A likely candidate for this bird would have been a Norfolk Black. The birds were raised in the countryside — for example in East Anglia — and were driven to London along the road. Their feet were sometimes dipped in pitch or asphalt to protect them for the long walk. In the US this breed is often just called Black. Before moving on to Dickens, I think it worth noting the emphasis that Mrs.Beeton places on the carving of the white meat. This focus on beautiful slices of breast meat is one factor that has created, one hundred and fifty years later, the breast-heavy modern turkey.

Mrs. Beeton was an influential cookbook author, but not a great influence on English prose. Dickens, however, remains one of the greatest English prose stylists. There is power in art — and Dickens’ influence over all of us through his ability to conjure visions out of words is felt today in our own dream of the Christmas dinner. “The Christmas Carol” is the literary source for the English Christmas dinner — and it is the book that celebrates the turkey as the essential element of the Christmas feast. But first, before we get to Christmas turkey — here is the great Charles Dickens Christmas Dinner.

The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock; a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see: who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in. and know me better, man!”
Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me!” 

We all know the story. Scrooge, the miser, changed. Scrooge, the man with the heart of stone became the man with a heart of gold. He didn’t just become a man who spoke kindly to others, who said all the right things, who showed sympathy, he became a man who acted generously. And his first generous act was to buy a Christmas turkey for the long-suffering family of his employee, Bob Crachit.

`What’s to-day, my fine fellow.’ said Scrooge.
`To-day.’ replied the boy. `Why, Christmas Day.’
`It’s Christmas Day.’ said Scrooge to himself. `I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow.’
`Hallo.’ returned the boy.
`Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner.’ Scrooge inquired.
`I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.
`An intelligent boy.’ said Scrooge. `A remarkable boy.’ Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one.’
`What, the one as big as me.’ returned the boy.
`What a delightful boy.’ said Scrooge. `It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck.’
`It’s hanging there now,’ replied the boy.
`Is it.’ said Scrooge. `Go and buy it.’
`Walk-er.’ exclaimed the boy.
`No, no,’ said Scrooge, `I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown.’
The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast.
`I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s.’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. `He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be.’
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The hand in which he wrote the address was not a steady one, but write it he did, somehow, and went down-stairs to open the street door, ready for the coming of the poulterer’s man. As he stood there, waiting his arrival, the knocker caught his eye.
`I shall love it, as long as I live.’ cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. `I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face. It’s a wonderful knocker. — Here’s the Turkey. Hallo. Whoop. How are you? Merry Christmas.’
It was a Turkey. He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped them short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.
`Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town,’ said Scrooge. `You must have a cab.’
The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.

So, the turkey that Scrooge purchased — the huge bird that could “never could have stood upon his legs” was a prize bird that hung in the poulterers window to draw people in. It wasn’t the only prize bird — there were two prize birds in the window — a little one and a big one. The prize birds were everyone’s dream, but they couldn’t afford to eat these dreams — on Christmas day these visions of unlimited bounty were still unsold. What people actually served at home for the Christmas dinner were smaller turkeys — very likely the eight to twelve pounds implied by Mrs. Beeton’s recipe.

We live in a time where the prize turkey — the prize everything — is always within reach. The middle-class of our empire can well afford a bird that is so large it could “never could have stood upon his legs,” and, in fact, does eat such a bird.

The humor in this passage from “A Christmas Carol” depends upon the fact that that turkey could walk. Dickens’s readers would have known seen or at least known about turkeys being herded into town for the Christmas season. The humor depends on our knowing the turkey was a normal turkey, which leaves the supernatural impression it makes on Scrooge a clear reflection of his own changes. Scrooge has undergone a rebirth; he is seeing the world with new eyes. It could be said that Scrooge is seeing the world for the first time. He imparts his own happiness, his own delight, his own sense of wonder, and his own new sense that everything is the mostest onto the turkey. It is a turkey seen through the eyes of a man who has just awakened into a world of color. How big was the turkey? Well, how small was the boy? How intelligent? How wise was the face on Scrooge’s doorknocker?

A modern author could not write this passage because the central image, the massive turkey that couldn’t walk, could be read as literally true. And that wouldn’t be funny. If the turkey were literally a gargantual freak — a creature that cannot hold up its own weight — then the core lesson of the story — that a great deal of what we see is a projection of our own spirit, would be lost. If the bird were literally so huge it couldn’t walk, it would mean serving a crippled bird for dinner — a terrible thought in its own right — and an especially awful thought in the context of the Christmas Carol as it would mean serving a crippled bird to a cripple, Tiny Tim.

When recreating a Dickensian Christmas — or an American Thanksgiving — select a turkey that is in the range of twelve pounds. Historically, turkeys have always been big birds. But also, historically, people have generally eaten them when they are, by our standards, comparatively small.

A bird around twelve pounds is still a very large bird — but importantly, it preserves the practice of fantasy that is so important in life. That beautiful turkey, roasted golden brown, seen through generous eyes will be the biggest and most beautiful turkey in the world.

The variety of turkey that was eaten in Dickens’s time was what in America we are now calling a “heritage turkey.” Heritage turkeys are increasingly available during the holiday season in specialty grocery stores, such as Whole Foods.

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