Large bird? Check. Colorful feathers? Check. The centerpiece of a harvest feast? Check. Before the turkey, there was the peacock.

Harvest feasts are an ancient tradition: human societies around the world give thanks for a successful harvest by eating. In England the end of the harvest season, with all its heavy labor, was celebrated on Michaelmas (St. Michael's Mass) at the end of September. By this time all the crops would have been gathered in and stored, and accounts settled for the agricultural year. Autumn was a time to cull the flocks and herds of those animals that their owners could not afford to feed over the winter, and the high point of the Michaelmas feast in England was for most people a roast goose.

For the nobility, though, whose wealth enabled them to eat meat and poultry whenever they chose—as long as it was not a day designated as a fast day by the church, which restricted them to eating fish instead—a goose was not special enough to be the centerpiece of a feast.

Instead the noble household often chose a truly striking bird for the table: the peacock. A fifteenth-century cookbook gives directions on how to prepare peacock for a feast. The cook was to skin the bird carefully, then roast the carcass, and finally replace the skin complete with its feathers for a magnificent display. Modern standards of cleanliness in food preparation might be outraged, but the immune systems of people accustomed to a far less sanitized world undoubtedly coped better with such a bacterial assault.

Everyone loved peacocks...even in illuminated manuscripts. Image via Getty Center/Wikimedia Commons.

The peacock was especially appropriate for a harvest feast, since it was considered a symbol of the Resurrection and eternal life in Christian iconography. Furthermore, peacocks are not native to Europe, making them rare as well as beautiful and giving the nobility who could afford to raise and eat the birds extra prestige.

Turkeys were also foreign imports, native to the Americas, but had already reached England by the mid-sixteenth century. Merchants from Constantinople in Turkey had imported the birds from America, raised them successfully as domesticated fowl, and then shipped them to markets in western Europe. The average Englishman's knowledge and interest in geography was not terribly precise, and so the name that became attached to these birds was "Turkey-cock," later shortened to just "turkey." It's even possible that some of the Pilgrims might have eaten turkey in England before they ever encountered one in its native habitat.

In 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth celebrated their first harvest with a three-day feast, to which also came many of the Wampanoag tribe under their leader, Chief Massasoit. A contemporary account by William Bradford, at that time governor of the colony, mentions wild turkeys as one of the local foods eaten. 

Through the rest of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the various English colonies in North America held occasional days of thanksgiving for successful harvests, military victories, and similar events. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, and the holiday has been celebrated each year since, with the turkey as the traditional centerpiece of the feast.

But before the turkey, there was the peacock.

--Kristen Burkholder

Further reading: 

Butler, Sharon. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and CeremonyNew York: George Braziller, 1999.

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval SocietyUniversity Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1990.

Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Rochester, New York: The Boydell Press, 1995.