Thanksgiving seems a consummately American holiday, embodied by nothing more succinctly than the roast turkey, a creature native to North America. However, in France, a feast not dissimilar to Thanksgiving took place each Nov. 11 to honor Saint Martin of Tours. Perhaps even more surprisingly, this too featured an enormous roast turkey as its central dish.
Alexandre-Laurent-Balthazar Grimod de la Reynière, the author of the world’s first serially published food magazine, the Almanach des Gourmands, in 1803 explained that no other day on the calendar held such joy for gourmands, be they Protestant, Greek Orthodox or even atheists. He described Saint Martin as the “patron of parties and the Saint the most generally invoked by men of good appetite.”
As Grimod himself put it, there’s no special evidence that this fourth-century bishop of Tours, long associated with the French royal family and nation, had epicurean leanings (although he has been credited as developing viticulture in the Touraine and for introducing the Chenin Blanc grape there). He was, in fact, a Roman soldier, before his conversion, and has long been venerated by the military. However, from an early date a great feast was held to venerate Saint Martin, which preceded the 40-day fast of advent.
Although this had been dropped by Grimod’s day, the copious harvest-festival banquet remained and stood as a highlight in any French gourmand’s calendar.
The French take to turkey
In no uncertain terms, this consummate epicure explained that the turkey was “the bird of Saint Martin.” He correctly elaborated that although the bird was not native to France, the French had taken to it immediately. Although he credited the turkey’s debut in France to the 1570 wedding banquet of Charles IX, 66 of them had already featured at the coronation feast given by the city of Paris to the king’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, in 1549. Regal French households had, in fact, been breeding them from as early as the 1530s.
Unlike other New World foods such as potatoes and tomatoes that took centuries to assimilate in Europe, turkeys met with instant popularity. Because the prevailing dietary theory accorded a high status to game birds, which, after all, were the exclusive perquisite of an aristocracy that enjoyed the right to hunt, these exotic birds felt appropriate for princely tables. In such a way the turkeyquickly replaced the goose, which had previously featured at the feast of Saint Martin, purportedly because he had hidden amongst a flock of geese when resisting his election as bishop.
In spite of the turkey’s renown in France, its origin proved a point of confusion. Grimod conjectured that the bird was either Namibian or Indian in origin. The latter theory gave rise to the early French term ‘coq d’inde’ (Indian cock), which eventually contracted into ‘dinde,’ for turkey (of course, the English got it equally wrong, attributing the bird to Turkey, hence the name).
He wasn’t that fussed about where the turkey originated so long as that on his table was young, plump, and juicy. His fellow Frenchmen apparently felt the same. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, fashionable Parisians bankrupted themselves to serve turkeys à la Périgord, i.e. stuffed entirely full of the region’s magnificent black truffles.
Grimod confessed that this extravagance could rarely be prepared on Saint Martin’s feast day, even by the wealthiest of hosts, because the holiday falls before truffle season typically gets underway (although he noted that there were exceptions). As an alternative, he suggested stuffing the bird with chestnuts from Lyon or little sausages from Nancy. One way or another, however, roast turkey had to appear at the Saint-Martin’s-Day feast.
Bringing Saint Martin’s feast back
The holiday has fallen out of favor in today’s secular society. Moreover, since World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the day has been remembered in France as Armistice Day, further obscuring its more ancient association with Saint Martin. Nevertheless, traces of it remain intact to this day.
The town of Varaignes in the Haut Périgord, for example, this Nov. 11, celebrated its 47th annual ‘foire aux dindons’ (turkey fair), which reprised an earlier, forgotten tradition. The festival begins each Saint Martin’s Day with a parade of turkeys through the town square and culminates in a grand banquet, featuring, bien sûr, a stew made from the turkeys bred in the region. Turkeys may be North American in origin, but for the locals who’ve been rearing them for centuries they now symbolize a proud part of the local terroir.
Plump Roast Turkey Stuffed with Foie Gras and Truffles
From the “Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine, d’Office, et de distillation. » (Paris : Vincent, 1767 ; translated by the author).
Choose a young, small and plump turkey. Pluck it, gut it & flame it. Take three blanched foies gras; cut the truffles, which have been partially cooked in a bouillon, into them and cut them in the same way. Put the truffles with the foies and some juice, and finish cooking them until the sauce dries out. Let it cool; stuff your turkey & stitch it up. Put it on the spit, wrapped in lard and paper; serve it with a good essence.
Top image: Turkey illustration from Pierre Bollons, “L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, Paris: 1555.” Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France