Yesterday morning as I flitted about preparing for the school run, still pondering my previous day’s post about why I’m not cooking a turkey dinner this Christmas, I caught this snippet of a news report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
The problem is that Turkey does not have its own defence missile system.
It was a few moments before I realised that I had misinterpreted a serious report about conflict in the Middle East as a silly season story about traditional Christmas dinners. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, the context of the story fell into place for me….
The Real Reason Why We Eat Turkey At Christmas
It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the newly-crowned Queen was not looking forward to the next day’s festive banquet.
Not roast boar again! she sighed to herself, drumming her fingers impatiently on the wooden embroidery hoop that lay neglected in her lap.
For generations, roast wild boar had been the focal point of her country’s traditional Christmas feast, and her sensitive young palate was bored of roast boar. And of deer and elk and moose, for that matter. In fact, all those cumbersome great creatures that the huntsmen insisted on dragging in did not impress her at all. Why did they always seem to think the biggest catch was the best?
Well, she was queen now, and if she wanted a more elegant centrepiece for the royal festive table, then a more elegant one she would have.
She called to the servant that stood to attention by the door, poised to rush off on any errand that took her fancy.
“Thomas, please summon the huntsmen,” she commanded. “And be quick about it. There’s not much time before it will be dark.”
Distractedly she added a few stem stitches to her embroidery while she awaited their arrival, the fine golden thread rasping against her palm as she pulled it through the fine linen cloth.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the door as a dozen huntsmen, dressed for action with knives in their belts and crossbows slung over their shoulders, jostled against each in the doorway. Each wanted to be the first to present himself to the Queen. She disregarded their open rivalry; it did not impress her.
“Now, I want you to go out and catch something different for tomorrow’s feast,” she instructed them. “Something small that can be cooked in the bread oven in the kitchen. Don’t bring back anything huge that has to roast for hours on a spit, looking like it’s being tortured to death. I want faster food. Bring me a lighter, more compact animal, served up straight from the kitchen to the table. It has to look pretty, too.”
The huntsmen exchanged anxious glances, but they knew they could not refuse a royal commission. There was no time to lose before dark. They’d have to work fast.
“I’ll give ten guineas to the huntsman who provides the best creature,” she added, rather hoping the victor would be young and handsome too.
The men perked up at this offer and immediately set off from the royal palace. Some headed for the hills, others down to the sea, but the two youngest and handsomest, Piers and Giles, decided to hunt closer to home.
They stalked off into the thick, dark woodland that lay immediately outside the palace walls. They did not bother to look down at the ground for tell-tale tracks of big game, but headed purposefully towards the lake where they knew smaller animals went to drink. As they entered the lakeside clearing, the loud beating of strong wings, carrying a grey goose into the sky above their heads, gave them an idea.
“Birds! We should stalk birds!” cried Piers. “Light to carry, quick to cook, and unspeakably pretty to serve, especially if you retain some fancy feathers for decoration.”
From the top of a nearby elm, a rook with an inflated idea of his own good looks also took flight, loudly cawing its disapproval of their scheme.
“Plenty of them around, too,” said Giles, watching its black outline become smaller against the grey December sky. “It’s just a question of catching them.”
Their hunter’s instinct bade them to fall silent as they trod softly onward, across crisp bronze bracken , down to the lake. Five swans idly drifted by, innocent of the huntsmen’s intentions.
“So shall we go for a swan, then?” whispered Piers. “You don’t get birds more elegant than swans. They are so beautiful.”
Giles narrowed his eyes against a shaft of winter sunshine just breaking through the clouds. He stared thoughtfully at the plumpest one.
“Imagine it dead, though,” he suggested. “That long, elegant neck would flop about like a string of sausages. Not exactly pretty on the plate.”
“Ducks, then,” said Piers, turning his gaze to a newly-landed mallard. The glossy bird was waddling contentedly along the water’s edge, the teal flashes on its folded wings glinting beneath droplets of water rolling proverbially off its back. “A duck’s just a swan on a smaller scale, but without the ridiculous neck.”
He took a few cautious steps towards the sturdy creature, but was stopped in his tracks by a loud squelch. He looked down to the source of the disgusting sound and saw his nutbrown calfskin shoe was now caked in a dark-green sludge.
“Ugh! Duck droppings! Just too messy. I’m not carrying one of those back to the palace.”
The duck let out a mocking quack and relaunched itself onto the lake before his pursuer could change his mind.
Forlorn, the two huntsmen sat down on a fallen tree trunk to reconsider. They stared at the lake hopelessly. It stirred gently beneath the chilly December breeze; a few skeletal leaves skittered around their feet.
“If swans and ducks won’t do, the only alternative out there is geese, and surely they’re the worst of both worlds – the long neck of a swan but the grubby looking feathers of a duck,” said Giles, watching the duck carve a v-shaped trail across the water’s silvery surface. “I’m not sure this was the best place to come after all.”
“Bigger poo, too,” said Piers. “So how about a peacock? You can’t say a peacock wouldn’t look pretty on a plate.”
“Oh yes I can,” retorted Giles. “It’s all very well when they’re wandering about the palace gardens preening themselves and displaying their tail feathers, but imagine the difference when they’re roasted. Their fancy tails would lie flat, trailing off the edge of the platter, not standing up like a fan. Not a pretty sight at all.”
Piers passed his hand across his face, as if to clear his thoughts. Suddenly he had an idea.
“What’s the Queen’s favourite colour?” he asked. “Maybe there’s a clue in that? Something really bright and cheerful would be festive. Or red? Or blue or yellow?”
A small blue tit that had been watching them from its perch on a low-hanging branch didn’t hang around to hear the answer, and a nearby red squirrel lobbed an acorn at the huntsmen in angry protest.
Giles shook his head.
“Polly says the Queen loves white at the moment,” he said, with the allowable authority of a man courting the Queen’s wardrobe mistress. “Pearls, ivory, diamonds – the less colour the better. It’s the latest fashion from Paris, apparently, and she thinks it’s more flattering for her pale skin. So anything highly coloured is unlikely to be well received.”
Piers pointed to a small stone cottage perched beside the lake a few hundred yards away.
“Let’s go and see the royal egg-keeper,” he suggested. “Maybe he’ll let us have one those fancy big white birds that the royal explorers just brought back from foreign parts. I don’t think they’ve been very productive on the egg front.”
“I hear they’re fat and stupid, and they don’t fly much,” said Giles. “So they should be easy enough to catch. I wonder what they taste like?”
“There’s one way to find out.”
Feeling more cheerful, they got up and headed for the royal egg-keepers cottage. Entering his walled garden, they disregarded the tawny coloured chickens, scratching about in the undergrowth, whose eggs were a staple of the royal diet. Instead the huntsmen set their sights on the chickens’ bigger, more exotic cousins. Although these portly creatures had integrated comfortably into the native flock, their size made them easy to spot. With snow-white feathers, these so-called turkeys (that were, court rumour had it, not from Turkey at all), were certainly of a colour that Her Majesty would find acceptable. Their neat appearance was spoiled only by the foolish, red, wobbly flaps of skin protruding from their head and neck. These odd protuberances would be unsightly whether the birds were alive or dead, but, as Giles was quick to suggest, the royal cooks could easily cover these up with a strategic pastry ruff or a cunningly fashioned collar of cabbage leaves.
The big birds’ conversation was less alluring than the chickens’ gentle clucking. Their harsh, throaty cackle became more raucous by the minute as the huntsmen weaved in and out, trying to scoop one up to capture. Undeterred by these grating sound effects, Giles soon managed to corner a healthy looking specimen against an outcrop of rock. While he bent towards it with arms outstretched, making what he hoped was an enticing “chook, chook, chook!” noise, Piers leapt behind the creature and shooed it towards his friend. A little closer …. and up! Gratefully, Giles flung his arms around the fat, feathery bird, pinned its wings to its sides, and swept it up off his feet.
“Ha!” he cried. “That wasn’t so hard! Now we’ve just got to get him back to the palace.”
“I hope the Queen will like it,” said Giles, as they headed back through the forest. He was not looking forward to the Queen’s reaction to those hideous red flaps.
With a flash of inspiration, Piers extracted a small dark woollen hood from the leather pouch that hung from his belt. He’d been using this hood the day before to control one of the royal falcons. It was a bit of a tight fit for the less streamlined turkey, but he soon had it over its head. The turkey immediately fell silent, as subdued as if it night had fallen.
“I expect she’ll like it once she’s tasted it,” Piers said hopefully.
They walked as fast as they could, discussing how each would spend his share of the ten guineas. The bird seemed to grow heavier by the minute.
As the forest started to thin out towards its boundary, they passed by a familiar hollow tree, often cited as a landmark due to the distinctive large hole in the trunk at shoulder height.
“Just a moment!” cried Piers. “I think there’s someone watching us from inside the hollow tree! Halt! Who goes there? Someone else trying to win the Queen’s Christmas favour, I’ll be bound. Well, I’m not having it! Giles, hide that turkey while I take a look.”
Giles raised his eyebrows, wondering exactly where he was meant to hide a bird that weighed as much as a small child.
Piers rushed forward, adrenalin pumping in anticipation of challenging a spy. He thrust both arms inside the hole, expecting to grasp the varmint’s neck. His attack was met not with human cries but with a startled avian squawk. When he hastily withdrew his hands, he found he was clutching not the neck of a rival hunter but the body of a large owl, soft, white and fluffy as snow. The bird blinked one startled amber eye at him and strained its wings against his cupped palms in a rush of optimism that it might escape.
Piers let out a cry of admiration.
“I say, Giles, that’s a beauty! Do you think we should take it back as another suggestion for the Queen’s Christmas dinner? There’s nothing unsightly about that specimen!”
Giles straightened his arms so that he could admire the bird at a greater distance.
“By George, I think we should,” he agreed. “It’s certainly a handsome fellow. Not sure how much flesh it has on it” –gently he squeezed the lightweight body “ – but it would certainly look a treat on a silver platter.”
To keep its broad wings under control, Giles tucked the bird close against his chest. Its tiny heart fluttered undetected through the huntsman’s leather jerkin. It was a comfortable arrangement for them both.
Once back at the palace, the two huntsmen sought permission of the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting to show their catch to their mistress. They were soon admitted to the Royal Bedchamber where the Queen was still toying with her embroidery.
Giles set the turkey gently down on the floor at his feet, its head and neck still concealed by the woollen hood. The big bird took a few steps unsteadily as it tried to acclimatize to the hard, chilly flagstones, so different from the soft floor of the kitchen garden. Stumbling across a discarded croquet mallet, it took comfort in settling on the handle, let out a contented “caw” and appeared to settle down to roost.
The Queen looked at the turkey thoughtfully.
“Nice white feathers,” she appraised. “They’d make a pretty decoration for my hair for Christmas Day. Plenty of meat on it too.”
She prodded it with the end of her embroidery scissors. It didn’t flinch. Then she turned to inspect the smaller, fluffier bundle that the second huntsman was clutching to his chest.
“What have you got there, Piers?” she questioned.
Piers gently set the fragile creature down on the floor. With its vision unhampered, the owl turned its head around, slowly, taking in its new surroundings. Sidestepping a few paces, it stared hard for a moment at its captor. Then it paced over to inspect the turkey, which was by now emitting a low, steady rumble that sounded remarkably like a human snore. The owl looked at the turkey, then it looked at the Queen, silently engrossed in assessing how much meat might be concealed under that feathery wrapper. The owl slowly made its way towards her, where it stood quietly for a moment, contemplating its next action.
And then it decided. With a rattling, hacking cough it opened its beak and expelled a dark brown, furry pellet to land neatly on the lacy hem of the Queen’s long white silk frock.
“Ugh! What on earth is THAT?” spluttered the Queen, teetering backwards and shaking her skirts anxiously. “The wretched thing’s attacking me!”
Giles stepped forward and bent to inspect the owl’s emission.
“It appears to be dried, matted fur, blood and – yes, a few bone fragments, too, Your Majesty,” he reported.
He bowed courteously, as if he’d just paid her a compliment.
“I believe that’s how owls expel their digestive waste. It’s the remains of a mouse or a rat that it had for lunch.”
The Queen shuddered.
“Surely you don’t expect me to eat something that’s got THAT muck inside it?” she shrieked.
The owl, which had been looking rather pleased with its performance, spread its snowy wings and fluttered up to perch smugly on a brass candelabra. It was so lightweight that the metal frame scarcely moved.
Giles turned his attention to the larger bird, which was still perched contentedly on the croquet mallet. He extended his arm in its direction, as if offering a formal introduction.
“Then might I suggest the turkey, your Majesty?”
The Queen nodded quickly, anxious to conclude the matter so that she could change into a fresh dress.
“Yes, yes, we’ll have the turkey. Now take them both away.”
She rang the bell for her wardrobe mistress and swept from the room, leaving Piers to coax the owl down from the candelabra. Meanwhile Giles hoisted the huge turkey into his arms to escort it to the kitchen.
As the huntsmen headed down the spiral staircase bearing both birds, they encountered Giles’ ladyfriend rushing to respond to the Queen’s summons. She’d heard of their mission and was eager to hear the outcome. While Piers explained, Giles mischievously whisked the woollen hood off the turkey’s head in hope of frightening her with its ugly red wattles.
“Ugh! Why on earth did Her Majesty choose that hideous creature instead of this gorgeous little owl?” she questioned, stroking the docile bird on the top of its head and wondering what it would taste like braised in mead. Assuming it was no longer under threat of execution, the owl happily allowed her this liberty.
“Oh, there’s nothing really surprising about that,” said Giles. “The problem is, that turkey doesn’t have its own defence missile system.”
I’m very excited that this post has been chosen to go behind today’s door on the fabulous Mumsnet Advent Calendar!
This story is an extract from my book called Tuning In, a collection of short stories inspired by listening to the radio, to be published by SilverWood Books in the New Year.