Colombian exchange — the turkey

Of all the foods that the New World gave to the Old World as part of what we call The Colombian Exchange — maize, the potato and tomato, cacao, many squashes and beans, to name but a few — none were so readily accepted by Europe and lands beyond as our American fowl, the turkey, about which we think greatly this time of year.

After Columbus, many foods made their way East, however their landing was marred by fear and superstition, allocation to the privileged only, and sometimes mere ignorance of how to cook and eat them. For example, it took more than 100 years after 1492 for chocolate (cacao) to go from a drink served only at the court of Spain into Austria and Eastern Europe where the common folk gave it a life as a confection.

But Meleagris gallopavo, the American turkey, was a hit at European tables from day one. By the early 1500s, turkey was widespread throughout the continent and especially over in what is now the United Kingdom; it just up and replaced goose in England as the centerpiece to Christmas dinner.

But no one gave it a common name. Linnaeus placed it as part of the genus “Meleagris,” or guinea fowl, a large version of which it was confused for early on, perhaps because both birds have a distinctive wattle. The French even now call it “dinde” or “dindon,” a squishing together of “coq d’Inde,” or “chicken from India,” which is where everyone thought it came from because that is where Columbus thought he was going.

The Spanish (and all subsequent Spanish speakers) took its second Linnaean name, “pavo,” to call it by. Hardly anyone calls it “turkey” except we English speakers, confused perhaps on the original receiving end because the British thought that much from the East was exotic and there was no more alien place there was than the country Turkey.

But to beat all, the Portuguese call it a “peru” and even Turks talking Turkish call the turkey a “hindi”– their way, I guess, of saying “d’Inde.”

True, turkey was served — by the Native Americans, as a gift to the newcomers — on what scholars believe was the second (not the initial) Thanksgiving Day feast, which didn’t take place until the 1620s. At that time, however, two flocks of turkeys pecked out their living on the North American continent, a domesticated one in both Mexico and our modern Southwest and the other, a wild one in what’s now New England.

The wild ones, though, didn’t taste great. It’s probable that the first Thanksgiving turkeys were from the long-established Mexican and Southwestern United States flocks. But there wasn’t yet a Zabar’s. How did those turkeys get to the feast tables of the Massachusetts Pilgrims?

From England.

Because the turkey, brought back to Spain by Columbus, was from Honduras, where he landed on his fourth voyage, it was of the strain and progeny of the original turkey flocks from Mexico and the (now) Southwestern United States. Because it was so readily accepted, propagated, and cooked with delight by the English and other Europeans, when it was brought (back) to the New World by the English in the late 1580s and into the early 1600s, it was that turkey that made to make the trip.

The terrible “starving time” of the winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown, Va., was allayed in part by those same turkeys, now become a flock, brought by settlers from England.

In this series on foods of the Colombian Exchange, I’ve alternated weeks on one foodstuff that made the trip East; the next, on the trip West. The turkey, of course, initially went East. Each week’s recipe, however, is from the region where the foodstuff originally landed, so today’s comes from a Spanish territory, one of its Balearic Islands.

But all of Europe adores cooking the turkey, just as we do. “Pavo” recipes are popular throughout Spain, with Catalonia making of it an enormous “en papillote” preparation and Andalucia interleaving slices of it with slices of pork loin and jamón (of course) in a casserole.

The Italians substitute turkey breast for veal scallops in a version of vitello tonnato The Italians substitute turkey breast for veal scallops in vitello tonnato or for pork loin in their popular preparation of braising a chunk of white meat in milk. Ireland roasts its breast under butter, watercress and cream, which sounds simply delicious. And the French make a gratin of it, under slices of potato, heavy cream, and grated cheese.

All these European dishes are a far stretch from our (and the British) simple roasting of it, but do illustrate the turkey’s variability in the kitchen beyond the same.

Escaldums (Braised Turkey with Almonds)

From “Culinaria Spain,” makes 4 servings. You may use the recipe’s boneless breast, but also what is used in the recipe’s place of origin, Majorca or Mallorca, a Balearic island of Spain, pieces (wings, cut-up legs, thighs) of bone-in turkey or chicken. If bone-in, simply lengthen the cooking time a bit.

Generous 1 pound turkey breast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped almonds
1 bay leaf
2 tomatoes, stemmed and diced
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken or turkey stock
Salt and pepper

Cut the turkey breast into chunks. Heat the olive oil in a pot and brown the meat on all sides. Lift out of the pot and set aside.

Cook the onions and the garlic lightly in the oil until they become translucent. Stir in the almonds and fry briefly. Add the bay leaf and the tomatoes. Pour on the white wine and the stock to deglaze. Replace the turkey pieces in the pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover, and simmer on medium heat for about 30 minutes until cooked.

Bill St. John can be reached at