Cutting Remarks

Today, all you need to carve the turkey is an electric knife. In the 1600s, you needed a serious education.


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Pity the turkey. Capons are sauced, cranes are lifted, partridges are allayed, geese are reared. Turkeys are, to use the proper historical carving vocabulary, simply cut up. The ritual carving of the turkey is one of the few vestiges of a past, glorious tradition that once wowed diners at spectacular feasts, and yet, the prosaic words for slicing up the turkey do not seem to match the grandeur of the deed.

Once, carving was held in high esteem. It was less about serving base bodily needs for nourishment and more concerned with spectacle and performance. Those who carved (and those who had carving done for them) were not concerned with where their next meal was coming from. It was a demonstration of power: the ability to muster a bountiful feast and an exhibition of control of the body (both that of the carver and of the animal carcass to be consumed). In full view of the diners assembled at the table, the carver hoisted the bird aloft with one hand, while wielding a razor-sharp knife in the other. Slices from the cooked carcass floated down to the plate.

The skill of the carver governed enjoyment of the meal. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford could entrance Falstaff with her skills with the knife, giving “the leer of entertainment.” William Shakespeare’s later editors have quibbled over the meaning of carving in that passage, wondering if slicing and serving could really be so seductive. (Yes. It can.) And while carving could possibly prove alluring — adding a frisson of fear, the loving housewife could turn her knife in threatening ways — unrefined skills could ruin the appetites of the diners. Samuel Pepys recorded his disgust at his aunt’s “greasy” manner of carving. Shame and social disgrace hung to those incapable of performing the duty well. Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, the eighteenth-century fop whose letters to his bastard son were posthumously published to advise the socially uncertain in all manner of behavior, declared “a man who tells you gravely he cannot carve, may as well tell you he cannot blow his nose; it is both as easy and as necessary.”

Necessary, yes. Easy? Not quite. Carving required practice, but the results of that study were to be hidden behind a mask of boredom and insouciance. Baldessare Castiglione dubbed this kind of refined and mannered ease sprezzatura. It was a casual effortlessness that left observers wondering what magic could be brought forth if only a bit of effort was applied. A man who could cut up a turkey as easily as slicing through butter certainly had other skills. Was he formidable on the fencing court? Thrillingly dexterous in the bedroom? (Maybe some things are best not imagined when a close blood relative does the honors at Thanksgiving.) What other secret powers did that body possess?

Not everyone could learn from a master. And self-help books advised uncertain readers, from lower down the social order, in the proper process of carving (and many other things.) Some of these books were more practical than others. A whole group of English cookery books revealed “the terms for the art of carving,” but not much else. Verb after verb piled up, as if words alone could sate hunger. Others provided diagrams, enumerated with step-by-step cuts. One seventeenth-century manual printed the diagrams on playing cards, dividing the various foodstuffs (fowl, fish, butcher’s meats like beef and lamb, and meat pies) into the various suites.

Turkey took pride of place as the King of Diamonds, displacing capons and the other grand birds that had ruled earlier tables. The turkey had the advantage of not just being an exotic import from the New World, but also having tastier flesh.

Turkey quickly found its way into European dining thanks to its similarity to other large birds. Cooks knew how to cook it. (Tomatoes and potatoes had a rougher assimilation, before becoming staples in cuisine.) The later arrival of the turkey from the Americas onto the English table, in the mid-sixteenth century, perhaps explains its quotidian carving vocabulary: the terms to describe cranes, herons, and peacocks all derived from medieval court practice and, specifically, the exclusionary language of hunting that was codified in manuscripts and printed books in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Arcane and exceedingly precise vocabulary was one tool for keeping social climbers at bay. Even in the early eighteenth century, poet William King mocked his contemporaries who — guided by the lists of obsolete words published in cookery books — tried to present themselves as more exalted than they were:

I am sure Poets, as well as Cooks, are for having all Words nicely chosen, and are properly adapted; and therefore I believe they would shew the same Regret that I do, to hear Persons of some Rank, and Quality, say, Pray cut up that Goose; Help me to some of that Chicken, Hen, or Capon, or half that Plover, not considering how indiscreetly they talk, before Men of Art, whose proper Terms are Break that Goose, frust that Chicken; spoil that Hen; sauce that Capon; mince that Plover. If they are so much out in common things, how much more will they be with Bitterns, Herons, Cranes, and Peacocks?

It was a vocabulary meant for snobs (although that word came later, in the nineteenth century. W. M. Thackeray ridiculed the “dinner-giving snobs” to great effect.) In England, the noble Office of the Carver (alongside Butlers, Pantlers, Chamberlains, and other service positions) gave way to housewives, sons, and eventually servants doing the so-called “honors of the table,” until even that mostly disappeared from the table and happened, out of sight, in the kitchen, except for the Sunday roast or holiday meal. The American practice of carving the turkey at the table on Thanksgiving nods to this richer tradition of sanctioning a special meal with ritual and spectacle. Getting meat off the bone to eat — rather than putting on a feast for eyes — otherwise rules the day.

The following instructions for cutting up a turkey first appeared in The Family Dictionary, or Household Companion (London, 1695), and were repeated verbatim in cookery books marketed at English housewives throughout the eighteenth century. Why not take a lesson from history this Thanksgiving?

Raise up the leg fairly, and open the Joint with the Point of your Knife, but take not off the Leg; then with your Knife lace down both Sides of the Breast, and open the Breast-pinion, but do not take it off; then raise the Merry-Thought betwixt the Breast-bone, and the top of it; then raise up the Brawn; then turn it outward upon both Sides, but not break it, nor cut it off; then cut off the Wing Pinions at the Joint, next the Body, and stick each Pinion, in the Place you turn’d the Brawn out; but cut off the sharp End of the Pinion, and take the middle Piece, and that will just fit in the Place.

If that doesn’t work, there is always the electric knife. • 15 November 2013


Heather Hess is an art historian specializing in the aesthetics of dining and banqueting since the Renaissance.