The Aztec history of your festive dinner

Dare to challenge the orthodoxy by refusing to incinerate your Christmas turkey.

If the mere thought of turkey is enough to send you scurrying back into the bunker of festive denial, then be thankful that the conscientious chef is no longer expected to purchase the bird six weeks in advance in order to fatten it on walnuts, as 19th-century cookbooks advise.

These days, most of us prefer to let someone else do the hard work for us (although the idea of salving one's conscience by indulging the sacrificial lamb with choice sweetmeats is an undeniably attractive one), which is why this week, as most of Britain sticks its fingers in its ears and pretends that Christmas isn't coming, Paul Kelly, an Essex farmer, will be busy bringing his turkeys in from the fields for slaughter. While we're force-fed mulled wine and mince pies, our turkeys are chilling quietly in sheds, ready for the big day.

Sounds like a lot of bother for something that most of us don't really want to eat - 87 per cent of Britons tuck into turkey on Christmas Day, but it's depressingly rare to find anyone with a good word to say about it.

The big bird hasn't always faced such cruel indifference: the Aztec emperor Montezuma sent the conquistador Cortes an appeasement offering of six solid-gold turkeys - a fully feathered status symbol in the pre-Columbian Americas.

Even the British initially embraced the turkey - just 15 years after the first pair disembarked in 1526, we find Thomas Cranmer cautioning his gluttonous clergy against attempting more than one of these "great fowl" at a single sitting. The priesthood aside, however, a whole bird was to remain a luxury for the next four centuries: the Cratchits may have been able to stretch to a goose but it takes Scrooge's wealth to secure them a prize turkey.

It wasn't until modern farming methods embraced the beast in the post-war years that Mrs Beeton's Victorian ideal of "a respectable, portly paterfamilias carving his own fat turkey, and carving it well" could become reality for the many. In 1930, a whole bird was a week's wages: now, it takes us on average just 1.7 hours to pay for our festive centrepiece.

Second-generation turkey man Kelly, a staunch advocate of slower-growing, more traditional breeds, believes that this change doesn't represent value, however. Turkeys take two months to lay down a skeleton, he tells me - so it stands to reason that a bird that has spent the past six months gorging itself on berries in the woods will have more meat per pound than a bony 12-week-old, however cosseted it has been during its brief life.

Foul fowl

But whether we buy into the free-range dream or not, we can do one thing for our turkeys this Christmas - and that's cook them properly. Nigella Lawson came under fire a couple of years ago for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the Food Standards Agency, but she's right: most of us splash out on the very best bird we can afford, only to ritually incinerate them. The awful spectre of salmonella still lingers on the extreme caution of cookery writers and editors - but you can bet Delia and her ilk don't sit down to a plate of celebratory sawdust every year.

So if you buy yourself one present this Christmas, I beg you, make it a meat thermometer. Roast your bird until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh (don't let it touch the bone) reads 65-70°C, then whip the turkey out and allow it to rest for at least half an hour before serving. Guaranteed perfection - and if you still don't enjoy your Christmas dinner, may I politely suggest trying something else next year?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman's food critic