REVIEW: Presenting the Turkey
Traveling with turkeys
An art historian documents how Europe greeted this American bird with awe

Reviewed by Christine Heinrichs

Details:

Presenting the Turkey: The Fabulous Story of a Flamboyant and Flavourful Bird

Sabine Eiche
ISBN 8-8703-8414-4
Centro Di, 2004
127 pp
$42.50 (cloth)

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January 27, 2005: Turkeys were one of the many astonishing delights the Americas sent back to Europe after contact. In this new book from Italian publisher Centro Di (the text is in English), art historian Sabine Eiche has assembled a delightful collection of art to illustrate the turkey’s adventures in Europe.

Turkeys arrived from the West Indies at King Ferdinand’s request in 1511. Initially regarded as some kind of peacock, turkeys soon acquired the cachet of exclusivity as pets and cuisine for the wealthy and noble. They graced courtyards and gardens of private zoos. Tapestries and paintings of the period reproduced in the book proudly display these exotic creatures.

The turkey's unusual appearance and delicious flavor spread its fame rapidly across Europe. They were soon popular in England, Italy, France, Germany and the Baltic states. A century after its initial arrival in Spain, the turkey was being welcomed in India.

Its remarkable behavior and gobbling couldn’t avoid notice. Comparisons to humans were irresistible, as Ms. Eiche documents. First depicted by Italian and northern German Renaissance artists for its novelty and startling appearance in the 16th century, by 1534 it was being painted as a symbol of stupidity in the Galerie Francois Ier at Fontainebleu. Netherlandish artist Peter Brueghel portrayed it as accompanying the personification of envy in 1558.

Back in the fledgling United States, Benjamin Franklin campaigned to make the turkey the national bird in 1784. He described it as “a Bird of Courage … that would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on,” although he conceded that turkeys are “a little vain and silly, but not the worse emblem for that.”

In the 19th century, cartoonist Jean Grandville poked fun at a banker by drawing him as a rotund turkey in 1867. In the 20th century, political cartoonist Peter Brookes ridiculed Britain’s most prominent party leaders by drawing them as turkeys.

Although turkeys have attracted derision from some, others have appreciated their grandeur, including Picasso’s "pleasantly plump mass of ruffled feathers."

Such rich material is often naturally funny. Ms. Eiche allows its humor to emerge effortlessly, unexpectedly tickling the reader to share a laugh.

The book's 65 illustrations, most of them in color, make this stroll through history with turkeys a pleasure for the eyes as well as the mind. Ms. Eiche has filled a significant niche with this lovely and amusing book. As she quotes 20th-century writer Morton Thompson, “Some topics cannot be done justice unless written with a pen filled with gravy.” Gravy flows freely in her elegant prose.

This book deserves to occupy the shelf of every serious turkey fancier, as well as those who simply enjoy enriching their knowledge of cultural and poultry history.

Christine Heinrichs is publicity director for the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.