What is Christmas without the Christmas feast? In this much requested column from The Sunday Telegraph, Mark profiles the big bird:
As Burt Bacharach and Hal David's classic "Turkey Lurkey Time" puts it:
Let us make a wish and may all our wishes come true
A snowy blowy Christmas
A mistletoey Christmas
A Turkey Lurkey Christmas to you...
But in the British Christmas there's not much snow outside of Richard Curtis movies, and in these days of sexual harassment suits and orientational diversity the mistletoe is an imperilled tradition. So that leaves the turkey, which doesn't so much lurk as squat over the Brit Christmas, its poultry penumbra casting a pall over the season. As Bacharach and David urge:
Ev'rybody gather round the table
Eat all the turkey you are able...
Easier said than done. From my side of the Atlantic, where Christmas is a one-day holiday called "Christmas Day", the interminable two-week British Christmas seems to have been fixed by some EU health agency as the safest minimum time in which to polish off the big bootiful British butterball, as the vast carcass slowly shrivels from Christmas Day through Boxing Day, Christmas Bank Holiday Tuesday, Hogmanay, the first Hogmonday after Hogtuesday, until the last relatives leave and you can put your feet up and enjoy a nice decaf turkey latte.
Indeed, one cannot help noticing that the traditional Christmas delicacy seems to have fused with Britain's vaguely parodic approach to the holiday season. "Turkey" means a large North American gallinaceous bird but also, in American showbusiness vernacular, a flop. Yet these days the latter usage is far more prevalent in Britain. The last time I spent the holiday season in the auld sod I motored down from London to the country on Christmas Eve and, instead of jingly versions of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland", every single radio station from Thames Valley Supergold to Clwyd FM had some sour disc-jockey counting down "Your All-Time Worst Christmas Turkeys".
Only the other week, The Daily Record asked "shoppers across Scotland which all-time Christmas turkeys drive you nuts". Twenty-five-year-old hairdresser Nicola Crawford said, "'Mistletoe And Wine' is definitely the most annoying. Cliff Richard just comes out once a year to torture us with a Christmas tune." On Broadway, where it started, this use of "turkey" is all but obsolescent, but one feels in Britain that some long simmering resentment of the long simmering bird has managed to infect the entire season.
In North America, we eat our turkey at Thanksgiving, polishing off the whole bird in one day, which is easy for us as we all weigh 400lb, of course. By late in the evening, if we're peckish, we may chug down a second gobbler. That frees up Christmas for a goose, a ham, a shoulder of venison fresh from hunting season or some such. Other countries have other Yuletide delicacies, from Portugal's traditional dried codfish to the Dutch oliebollen, or "oiled balls". But in no other country does one dish have a monopoly on the Christmas table to such a degree that one wonders why it hasn't fallen fowl - er, foul - of EU anti-trust regulations.
Before turkey took over, the British celebrated Christmas with goose or bustard, so 400 years ago The Independent's mocking headline for Bush's 2003 Thanksgiving Baghdad photo-op - "The Turkey Has Landed" - would have read "The Bustard Has Landed". The bird that supplanted the bustard was introduced to Europe early in the 16th century by one of Sebastian Cabot's men who brought it from the New World. The turkey came from Mexico, but was generally assumed to be a "bird of India" (in French, dinde) everywhere except Britain, where it was named after Turkey because it was similar to a pre-existing bird introduced from Turkey but actually from Guinea, and subsequently re-named the guinea fowl, which was thought to be less confusing than re-naming the new turkey the mexico, though in America there is a sub-species of turkey called the mexicana.
We still have wild turkey over here, in every state except Alaska. Every morning, round about six, a great long line of them waddle out from behind my daughter's playhouse across the lawn and into the woods. The wild gobbler has a lighter build, with a longer neck and a smaller head, and his flesh tastes a lot juicier, which is one reason why the turkey recipe in my local Baptist church's brand new fundraising cookbook begins: "First purchase hunting licence."
Whatever his Mexicali-Turkic-Indian-Guinean appellation, in the Appalachians the turkey was considered such a robust exponent of the American temperament that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make him the young Republic's national emblem. "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character," wrote Franklin in 1784. "Besides he is a rank Coward: the little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country."
By contrast, the turkey is "a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a Red Coat on". Franklin would have entirely missed the sneer in that Independent headline. To him, you could hardly find four better words to sum up the American spirit than "The Turkey Has Landed".
That's the curious thing about the turkey: he's a creature of extreme stereotypes. For the last half of December, he's the embodiment of bloated seasonal excess; the rest of the year, he's the healthy option in the lunchtime sandwich shop, the last acceptable meat to those of an all but vegetarian disposition.
The broader characterisation of this American bird is equally polarised: "turkey" as a term of disparagement in the Cliff Richard Christmas-single sense derives from the bird's supposed lack of intelligence. Even by Shakespeare's time, the creature's strutting gait was seen as a sign of pompousness - Fabian in Twelfth Night: "Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!" But, on the other hand, "to talk turkey" is to speak frankly and the turkey trot is a dance of buoyant optimism.
Which is the real turkey? The strutting moron? Or the optimistic straight-talker? There was little doubt among those commentators who stampeded to fall for the canard that George W Bush had served a "plastic turkey" for Thanksgiving in Baghdad. It wasn't plastic, it was real and roasted. But The Australian extrapolated that "the word turkey - with all its pejorative meanings - is a perfect metaphor for the bumbling phony in the White House", while The Guardian declared that Bush was "stuffed" and was likely to be his family's "second one-term turkey".
No other main course gets so traduced by the vernacular. "Beef" means physical strength, and "ham" means corny, and "chicken" means a fetching young gay male, but the moronicness of "turkey" seems to increase in proportion to the bird's seasonal ubiquitousness. What other dish sums up all the epic conflicts of the age? It's the only bird with built-in institutional colour prejudice (white or dark meat?); named at the height of Islamic global influence, it now symbolises the American hyperpower. Over-priced, over-cooked and over here: even as they mock it, the British cannot escape its reach.