Thanksgiving food writing is full of recipes and histories of the dishes that we find on the American table, like roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But I would like to tackle the history of a once-popular dish that I suspect nobody ate last Thursday: the dinde truffêe. Since I’ll never have the chance to taste this luxurious fowl, writing about it will have to sate my appetite.
When I first encountered a recipe for “young turkey with truffles” in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, I was gobsmacked. “Pour 4 cups of whole truffles” into about a pound of melted lard, poach for 15 minutes, mix with another two pounds of lard, cool, then stuff the mixture into a turkey along with a little salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let it sit out in a cool place for two days, then roast. 4 cups of truffles! The three pounds of lard would trouble my powers of digestion, but 4 cups of whole truffles would murder my pocket-book.
At first I thought this recipe, included in the chapter “Little-Known French Dishes,” was exemplary of the almost- satirical celebration of sensual excess and indulgence that runs throughout Toklas’s cookbook. But as I continued researching, I discovered that Toklas, in her own way, was faithfully reproducing a true French classic. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, often regarded as the father of gastronomy (at least from a Francocentric perspective), rhapsodizes about truffled turkey in The Physiology of Taste (1825). “The highest gastronomic circles,” Brillat-Savarin informs readers, consider dinde truffée the ideal second course.
A lawyer by trade, the practical Brillat-Savarin calculated the expense of this meal at 20 francs. Translating historical currencies into modern values is almost impossible, but here’s my best effort. According to one source, the value of a franc in 1830 could be converted to roughly 2.26 euros in 2006, or roughly 3.00 dollars. Adding a little for inflation, that put the price of a truffle-stuffed turkey at around $65.00 in today’s dollars. According to Brillat-Savarin, its price put dinde truffée out of reach for the “mechanic” or the “artist.” However a professional, like himself, could afford to serve the dish to valued guests.
Just to be clear: no matter how much I treasure your company, you have no chance of eating dinde truffée at my table. My professional salary won’t support it.
Perhaps, my husband hypothesized, before American farmers bred turkeys to resemble the Michelin tire man, they were less costly to stuff with truffles. Turkeys, of course, are a new world species. Native groups domesticated turkeys before the European invasion, and the Spanish brought turkeys back to Europe soon after colonization. Brillat-Savarin calls turkey “the most glorious presents made by the new world to the old.” At first, judging from the Dutch artist Salomon Van Ruysdael’s “Nature Morte au Dindon” (1661), hanging in the Louvre, the turkeys farmed in Europe resembled their wild American cousin more closely than they did today’s giants.
By the nineteenth century, however, French turkeys seem to have developed a growing resemblance to today’s gobblers. Claude Monet’s charming “Les Dindes au Château de Rottenbourg, Montgeron” (1876), hanging at the Musée d’Orsay, shows a meadow full of plump white hens, with a tom fanning his tail standing sentinel at back. The scale can be hard to assess, but I would hazard that you could squeeze a lot of truffles into one of those birds.
Today, French turkeys have no reason to blush before their American cousins. I snapped a picture of a 12-kilo (26 pound) monster at a butcher on Thanksgiving day. And I saw one the other day that looked even larger!
If smaller turkeys cannot explain the relative affordability of dinde truffée to past generations, shifts in the cost of truffles offer a more likely explanation. According to Brillat-Savarin, after being en vogue during the Roman Empire, truffles entered a long period of quiescence in European cuisine. They were not rediscovered until the eighteenth century, and before the Revolution they remained an extremely pricey rare commodity. Brillat-Savarin claims that as late as 1780, only nobles and kept women could afford to eat dinde truffée.
After the Revolution, a period during which gastronomy in Paris flourished, truffle prices appear to have become far more reasonable. in 1801, Beauvilliers, a popular restaurant at the Palais Royal, offered half a chicken with truffles for 4 francs. And according to British visitor Francis Blagdon, by that date turkey stuffed with truffles was a common dish to be served at refined dinner parties.
By the time Brillat-Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste in 1825, he believed that the truffle stood at its apogee in French culture. However, the knobby little fungus only continued to grow in popularity over the following decades. By 1929, the American food writer and passionate Francophile Thérèse Bonney claimed that the French regarded truffled turkey as almost a national right, and “with a million pounds of truffles annually, a Frenchman can afford to think that!” (Bonney also pointed out that the true truffled turkey had not only its cavity stuffed, but truffles slipped under its skin as well.)
Did the dish ever catch on in the United States? The very first French cookbook published in America, Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook (Philadelphia, 1822), included a recipe for dinde truffée that Toklas would appreciate. You begin by taking two or three pounds of truffles (I love the margin for error) and peeling them. Dice the smallest truffles and combine them with shaved bacon fat. Next add to the mix the large truffles which have been left whole, together with salt, spices, pepper, and cayenne, then stuff the turkey. Let the bird sit for a couple days “to obtain a fine flavour of the truffles,” then finally roast it wrapped in bacon and covered with paper.
Few recipes direct you to peel truffles today. Truffle peelings are so valuable they may constitute an ingredient in a dish. The French website marmiton has a recipe for dinde farcie aux truffes that calls for a petite boîte de pelures de truffe, or a little box of truffle shavings. Truffle peelings can be bought online from numerous outfitters, at the reasonable price of 15€ for 12.5 grams.
But how much would it cost to cook a dinde truffée today the old-fashioned way? In the mid-20th century the price of truffles sky-rocketed. Presently, the most highly-valued white Italian truffe d’albas are selling for 5300€ a kilo at our local high-end butcher (or for American readers, that’s about $3200/lb.) Needless to say, I didn’t buy the one on display below. But the incredibly kind butchers allowed me to take a whiff from the jar. Pure heaven, the sense memory filled my nostrils for hours afterward.
So exactly how much would it cost to make a classic dinde truffée today? Working from Ude’s recipe, taking the middle-figure of 2.5 pounds of truffles, I would estimate well over $8,000. Of course, turkeys feed many people. Perhaps the price would seem more bearable if divided by ten or even twelve. One portion of true truffled turkey might cost as little as $800.
I thought about launching a kickstarter campaign to fund this dish for Thanksgiving. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Simple folk that we are, we made do with the stuffing appropriate to mechanics and artists, in Brillat-Savarin’s judgment: sausage and chestnuts. And we were thankful for it.
Related posts see:
Amanda Moniz on the history of 8 classic Thanksgiving foods
Sheila Moeschen on historic sexy Thanksgiving ads
Elaine Sciolino on Thanksgiving in Paris and the anecdote of the American couple who bought a foie-gras stuffed turkey by mistake