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Shakespeare & Beyond

Before the Thanksgiving turkey came the banquet peacock

In his Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, Giovanne de Rosselli offers instructions for a stunning 16th-century banquet centerpiece: a gilded, fire-breathing peacock. While the meat of the peacock is edible—the meat is carefully removed from the body, roasted, and then sewn back into flesh—the recipe is all about presentation.

“If you will have the Peacoke cast fire at the mouth, take an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong wine, and when you will send it to the table, set fire to the Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be spiced very sweet. The like may be done with a Pheasant, or any other birds.”

—“To dresse a Peacocke with all his feathers” from Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, Giovanne de Rosselli (printed in England in 1598)

Lavish dinners—and the cookbooks and instruction manuals for how to execute them—were popular during the Renaissance, and they emphasized the art of food, in addition to—and at times, over—its taste. Peacocks were thus an ideal banquet food because their colorful plumage made for artful display. But over the early modern period, turkeys came to replace peacocks as the customary food of ceremonies and holidays.

According to the 16th-century historian Francisco López de Gómara, turkeys (what were then called the “Indian bird”) were amongst the foods Christopher Columbus gave to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella upon his return to Spain. Of those foods—which included rabbit, peppers, sweet potatoes, and cornbread—turkey was the most quickly adopted into the European diet. It was the first American import to feature in royal cookbooks and, by the 17th century, the turkey regularly appeared on the menus for weddings, feast days, and holidays.

Turkey’s popularity has continued: by the end of the early modern period, the turkey was (and has remained) quintessential Christmas fare in England. The 18th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that “turkey surely is one of the most beautiful gifts from the New World to the Old.”

The immediate popularity of turkey can be explained by its similarity to (and, to people living in the early modern period, its superiority over) the peacock. The birds’ perceived interchangeability is exemplified in a pair of 1627 still-life oil paintings by Pieter Claesz. The first of the banquet paintings takes as its central subject a large peacock pie, a pastry in which the peacock’s meat is cooked. The bird’s neck and head are erected on top of the pastry and its wings and tail feathers are positioned around it, so that the pie represents the bird’s body.

Still Life with a Peacock Pie
“Still Life with a Peacock Pie”, Pieter Claesz (oil on panel, 1627), image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

The second painting is remarkably similar, featuring a turkey pie in place of the peacock.

Still Life with a Turkey Pie
“Still Life with a Turkey Pie”, Pieter Claesz (oil on panel, 1627), image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

The second image is literally modeled on the first: grooves in the edges of the first painting suggest that Claesz not only used the same design for the second piece, but also directly copied from the first painting, creating a grid system out of strings to enable a more accurate transfer of the image. As in real banquets, the peacock came first.

The peacock and turkey are the centerpieces of their respective paintings, which also depict other luxury goods imported from around the globe, such as porcelain plates from China, a nautilus shell from the Indo-Pacific, and ivory-handled knives. The pies themselves would have included South Asian and South East Asian spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and mace.

Not unlike gingerbread houses today, peacocks and turkeys and the elaborate pies made from them were not necessarily consumed, though people could and did eat them. Early modern banquets were a form of domestic theater: the staging and performance of food was carefully crafted to create an immersive experience.

Because of their similarity in size and appearance, peacock and turkey could be substituted in these performances. For instance, in his landmark book on meat carving, Vincenzo Cervio—a renowned Italian carver—treats peacock and turkey together. His method of carving—known as the Italian method—consisted of holding the bird in the air on a fork, so that the meat and its carving could be observed by all. The ready conflation of peacock and turkey in his 1581 book also demonstrates just how quickly turkey was adopted in Italy, following its introduction to Spain.

Turkey and peacock
The “Gallo d’India” [Indian rooster, i.e. turkey] and “Pavone” [peacock] in Vincenzo Cervio’s Il trinciante [The Carver], 1593. British Library.

In the early modern period, there were complex systems of hospitality and gift giving, and food was at the center of these practices, as food was both required to be served to guests and the most common gift. For their beauty, utility, and novelty, peacocks and turkeys made excellent gifts, both dead and alive. Early modern English household accounts thus detail the difficulties of raising turkeys, a practice that took off in the mid- to late-16th century.

For all the attention that peacocks received as beautiful sights, they were thought of poorly as sources of nutrition. In his dietary treatise entitled Klinikē [i.e., the art of the doctor], or The Diet of the Diseased (1633), James Hart says that while “[i]t was esteemed a dainty dish among the antient Romans”, “[t]he Peacocke is of a very hard, solid and firme flesh, and hard of digestion, being of a hot and drie substance, ingendring grosse and melancholicke humours, and therefore need a strong stomacke,” though he qualifies that “[o]thers, again, esteeme this to be of as good a nourishment as a Turkie.”

In the Galenic humoral system, which was still common practice in the early modern period, a “hot and drie substance” was not necessarily a poor choice for all. Nevertheless, the peacock was not considered an ideal meat and so it was perhaps bound to be replaced. But most importantly, turkeys replaced peacocks because they tasted better: peacock meat was notoriously dry and tough.

It might come as a surprise to us that turkey—widely recognized as one of the driest meats—was considered an improvement over the peacock. Its dryness is perhaps one of the reasons many of the turkey recipes in the Folger’s collection of early modern recipe books include a lot of bacon and butter.

Recipe for turkey pye
“To Season a Turkey Pye” from Constance Hall’s recipe book (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.20, 31v)

Today, Christmas and Thanksgiving turkey is traditionally served with gravy, which adds much-needed moisture. This history of consuming turkey with plenty of sauce goes back as far as its introduction in Europe.

Hannah Woolley sauce recipe
“To make Sawces for all manner of Roast Land Fowl. As, Turkey, Peacock, Pheasant, Partridge, and the like” from Hannah Woolley’s The compleat servant-maid (London, 1677). British Library.

It is telling that there are almost no references to peacocks at all in the Folger’s manuscript recipe book collection, while turkey recipes abound: most of our recipe books were compiled in the late-17th and 18th centuries, by which time turkeys had replaced the ‘dry’ and ‘heavy’ peacock on dinner tables.

Because Thanksgiving is not a holiday outside of Canada and the US, and because peacocks were not widely consumed as food after their introduction into North America, the peacock was never a substitute for the Thanksgiving turkey. In a post-pandemic world, one might feel inspired to try surprising one’s Thanksgiving guests with a fire-breathing peacock. But there are other reasons why the early modern peacock does not make a promising Thanksgiving display: peacocks drop their feathers in the autumn, and so this luxurious banquet piece would never have translated to a harvest feast.

Further Reading
  • María de los Ángeles Pérez Samper’s “The Early Modern Food Revolution: A Perspective from the Iberian Atlantic” in Global Goods and the Spanish Empire, 1492–1824.
  • Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England.
  • Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.’s “Pieter Claesz/Still Life with Peacock Pie/1627” in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century


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