A Peafowl by Any Other Name

December 3, 2009

As he was constructing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon labored to establish extensive and far-reaching trade routes to bring the very best for the service of God. A series of maritime expeditions were launched to the most distant lands; the expeditions returned to Jerusalem carrying an array of goods which the inhabitants had never before seen.

The lands which were visited are named and vaguely described in both Kings and Chronicles, although few of these lands can now be identified. What is known are the items which were brought back to Jerusalem. The Bible records regarding one of the expeditions (Kings 1: Ch. 10 v. 22 similar to Chronicles 2: Ch. 9 v. 21), “For the boat of Tarshish was for the king in the sea with the boats of Hiram; once in three years the boat of Tarshish would come carrying gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks.” The people of the Phoenician city of Tarshish were the preeminent mariners of biblical times. It was they who traveled to the most distant lands, returning with the most impressive items to display to the people of Jerusalem.

While Tarshish was a city-state located on the shores of the Mediterranean, the domain of King Solomon stretched from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Thus, by allying themselves with the ancient Israelites, the mariners of Tarshish gained access to the Far East. Although peacock could have been procured in many places along the coast of the Indian subcontinent, there is linguistic evidence that it was specifically the island of Sri Lanka that was visited. The Hebrew word used in the Bible to identify the peacock is tuki, which is almost identical to the ancient Tamil word for peacock, toka.

Four hundred years after the death of Solomon, the peacock is once again mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Ezekiel; when the prophet bemoans the destruction of Tyre he mentions the ivory and peacocks in which they traded. (Ez. 27:15). In the Book of Ezekiel the birds are no longer referred to as tuki but rather as havonim. This word is similar to the word pavo which is still the name by which peacocks are called in many European languages.

As a result of the civil war which followed the death of King Solomon, Israel’s nautical exploration was put on hold. The Israelites were only periodically able to access the Port of Eilat on the Red Sea and there were only sporadic attempts to renew trade from this area. Despite the decline of the Israelite state, the Phoenicians continued to maintain their trade routes with the Far East, although it is not clear which ports were used to access the Indian Ocean.
When the Babylonians exiled the Jewish people and subjugated the Phoenician city-states, the maritime explorations in the Far East ceased. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great marched into India and once again began trading with the Far East, this time opening the silk route which was over land. It was only a matter of time until peacocks were once again imported into Israel as well as the other parts of the Greek empire. The birds are discussed in the Talmud, where they are identified as kosher.

The size of the peacock set it apart from the other fowl which was raised in ancient times. Osteological evidence indicates that the chicken which was kept two thousand years ago was only slightly larger than a pigeon. Comparatively the peacock would have been a mammoth centerpiece at any ancient feast. It remained so in Western Europe, until the 16th century when it was replaced by the larger and perhaps tastier turkey. Prior to the arrival of the turkey, period cookbooks often focus on the drama of a dish with peacock. John Baptist Porta (in a work which was written in the 1600’s) recommends cooking the peacock and then adding gold leaf before reattaching the skin and feathers to make the bird look alive. No such attention is lavished on the bird in the 1723 Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary. Two recipes for the peacock are included, none of which involved any gold. In more recent times, the peacock has vanished from even the most elegant restaurants.

Five years ago, I saw live peacocks being sold in a New York meat market for about double the price of a large turkey. I haven’t seen them since. The last recorded listing of the bird among kosher meat was from Italy in the mid-1800s. The OU does not certify the peacock, and there has never been any local demand for the meat of this bird. Perhaps, for a bird as beautiful and graceful as the peacock, it is best to know it is kosher, and leave the actual taste a mystery.


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