The turkey, a vehicle for cultural exchange

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I associated eating turkey with Thanksgiving (AKA El Dia del Pavo or “Turkey Day”), a celebration that came to the island through the influence of the United States. Yet, as I carried out research in Mesoamerica, it quickly became evident that the turkey is “All American,” in the truest meaning of the demonym. This year’s “Sanguivin” post is dedicated to the star of the holiday: the Meleagris gallopavo – the bird at the center of this “All American” holiday celebration.

thanksgiving postcardMentions of guajolotes, chompipes, guanajos, and, of course, pavos, are present across different Latin American cookbooks and menus. These various Spanish translations for turkey denote the importance of the bird in the Americas, much beyond the United States. The Meleagris gallopavo was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, as an important source of protein. The Mexican term for the bird, the guajolote, comes from the Náhuatl “huexólotl,” refering to the bird as a big monster, for the male’s large size and feathers. The bird was even associated with the god Tezcatlipoca, and deities of  the sun and life.

UNAM_Guajolote representations

Guajolote representations from Mexico (Image from Jareni Ayala, in “Guajolote, símbolo milenario de nuestra cultura“)

Since its domestication in the Americas about 2000 years ago, turkeys have moved across continents. When the Spanish conquistadors met the guajolote, they took it back to Spain as the gallina de las Indias and later calling the bird pavo. The bird became a dish of nobility, spreading across Europe. The bird arrived to England via Turkey, resulting in the English name of the bird from its mistakenly identified country of procedence. A century after the Spanish took the bird across the pond, the English colonist brought the Europeanized bird back to its native continent, to Eastern North America – the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving meal.


‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914)

While the reality of the meal and the colonial times in which it took place is darker than its feel-good meaning today,  the traditional Thanksgiving feast is an important part of the United States’ origin story. For newcomers, the meal represents an opportunity to participate in the cultural festivities of the new home, as part of the journey of becoming “American.”


Source: Tenement Museum Instagram (11/22/2018), featured in a recent NYT piece on first Thanksgivings

The turkey serves as a vehicle for adaptation, being prepared with traditional flavor principles by the diversity of cultures that celebrate the holiday in the United States, flavored with extra garlic, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, or even mofongo stuffing, just to name a few. The bird may even be replaced by tofu, while still retaining its name and shape (almost)…


Photo: I Love Vegan blog (see post and tofurky recipe here)

The turkey’s circular journey across the globe has much to teach about the formation of food traditions, in spite of geographical borders. The bird served as a cultural ambassador of sorts from the New World to the Old World. Today, in some ways, the turkey continues to fulfill a similar role, serving as a vehicle for cultural exchange, but with its production at a large scale today, providing access to the masses – a far cry from the exclusive consumption during its early days as a European luxury bird.

Turkeys 2013

Photo: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services (Commercial poultry)

Sources / Further reading:


Talking NAFTA, Food, Mexico and Beyond

This month I was honored to be part of two events* in celebration of Alyshia Gálvez’s new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food policies and the destruction of Mexico (University of California Press). Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Her book, Eating NAFTA, exposes how the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 between Mexico, the United States and Canada, created fundamental changes in Mexico, specifically in the country’s sustenance and its related nutritional outcomes. NAFTA dramatically altered Mexico’s food system where notions of efficiency became preferred over the importance of sustenance, nutrition, and even taste. As a result, today Mexico imports 42% of its food, mostly from the United States. Furthermore, Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA reminds us how the rural sector has long been seen in Mexico (as in other countries) as backward, blamed for the nation’s lack of development, and in need of intervention – giving way to modernization and industrialization at the expense of sustenance and people’s wellbeing. The book also addresses the rise in obesity and chronic diseases in Mexico and its transnational immigrant communities, as a result of the dietary and population shifts created by NAFTA. In doing so, Galvez makes us think critically about many of Mexico’s public health initiatives. Interventions and policies, as the lauded soda tax, may obscure the structural causes of the problem, including the role of transnational food companies.

While focused in Mexico, it is important to note that the book provides insights that can be readily applied to other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many of the transitions described in Eating NAFTA resonated with the work I have done in rural communities in Central America, including the shift in status and social norms around traditional dishes as a result of globalization.

A small store in rural El Salvador, featuring a diverse offering of ultra-processed snacks with a few locally produced goods.

Discussions about trade and NAFTA have recently been part of the news, with the President’s criticism of the agreement as a “bad deal” for the United States, and the recent signing of a new version – the USMCA – the unpronounceable acronym for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. A quick overview of the new deal by the Brookings Institute shows that the changes are mostly cosmetic and reminds us that the deal is yet to be ratified into law. While the three countries are on schedule for the December 1st signing, the next and most difficult step will be ratifying the agreement. The vote will be significantly influenced by the upcoming midterm elections:

There are reasons why both Republicans and Democrats may be reluctant to approve the deal. Republicans in Congress are wary of Trump’s protectionist instincts; Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to actively help Trump realize one of his key campaign promises. Thus, USMCA’s congressional path remains unclear. (Of course, for their part, neither Canada nor Mexico will likely protest too strenuously if the U.S. fails to ratify the new pact, so long as it allows them to keep the existing NAFTA.) – Gertz 2018, Brookings Institution

In the end, the USMCA may do little to change the lives of those most affected by these deals: the invisible rural poor, particularly in Mexico. While there is some excitement about the provisions to potentially improve labor conditions in Mexico, such provisions will not change the existing shifts in the national food environment and the transitions detailed by Gálvez and others.

Trade policies can be better at improving the overall wellbeing of the most vulnerable in the countries, but that will depend on the political will of the leaders in these countries. There is hope in the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his potential policies to make “rural Mexico great again.” During his political campaign, he endorsed a new version of the Plan de Ayala, based on the plan originally written by Mexican Revolution leader, Emiliano Zapata and his supporters in 1911. The Plan seeks to promote self-sufficiency in important crops, including corn, beans, and wheat. Most importantly, it may address many of the concerns of the rural poor, as summarized below:

The Plan de Ayala explicitly does away with policies that write off poor producers as worthy only of welfare, treating all small and medium-scale farmers as deserving of productive public investment. The Plan addresses chronic market failures in the Mexican countryside, with credit programs, crop insurance, and protection from anti-competitive practices by agribusiness buyers and sellers. It targets support to producers farming fewer than 50 acres. The Plan commits to a transition toward agro-ecology, bars transgenic crops, and creates a National System for the Protection and Improvement of Mesoamerican Agro-biodiversity, with a special program called Native Maize-Tortilla 2050 to promote the cultivation and consumption of native maize. This is just the sort of directed action that can revalue indigenous cultures and practices while actively supporting the production of native maize. – Wise 2018

Much remains to be seen.

Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA is a timely contribution with important lessons learned in these ongoing times of transition for Mexico and beyond.

See this link for upcoming book events and further information about Gálvez and her book.


* The first event was at NYU and the second at CUNY. Video links will be posted when available.

Soda and happiness during the holidays

Catching up after a Christmas visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this interesting post in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics Blog, Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style. Mexico has been at the forefront fighting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including implementing a soda tax, which has decreased soda consumption in the country. These efforts have been in response to Mexico’s high obesity rates and incidence of related health conditions, including diabetes.

The latest in these health advocacy messages target drink choices during the holidays, including an ad featuring Santa Claus. The video shows Santa apologizing for “being part of a company that denies information to the consumer and takes advantage of children”, ending with his resignation from the company and a plead for children to “stop drinking these drinks”:

This ad, along with the active government role in addressing soda consumption, stand in sharp contrast with my recent observations during my short Puerto Rican Christmas. The island, like Mexico, also suffers from high rates of obesity, and diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability. Yet, little, if any, public health initiatives or advertisement is seen to combat this. On the contrary, companies like Coca-Cola, are enjoying the benefits of more sales! This recent trend is related to their newest campaign, “Share a Coke”, where consumers are able to find their names or family names in the bottles. This simple addition has reversed the downward sales trend for the company. And – of course – Puerto Rico got an adapted (or creolized) version of this campaign:

Source: El Vocero

Source: El Vocero

The campaign includes the most common last names in Puerto Rico, colloquial nicknames (for example, “Panita” and “Jevo”), as well as positive emotions such as “love” and “happiness”. Quoted in a local newspaper, Puerto RIco’s Coca-Cola marketing director underscores the role of this soda in “uniting people for more than 128 years to create moments of happiness” (my translation). Yet, the same moments of happiness can be achieved over an icy cold glass of water, lemonade, or an equally cold Medalla (the local beer, in moderation).

The “Share a Coke” campaign was rolled out in September of last year (2014), about two months after the local health department published a page-long ad against sodas and sugar sweetened beverages, featuring the familiar image of the drinks alongside a multitude of sugar packets,

Source: Radio Isla

Source: Radio Isla

Not surprisingly, this ad was received with criticism from representatives of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sadly, the opposition was also shared by members of one of the main political parties, the (pro-statehood) Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), claiming “negative effects for the consumer”. Similar opposition can be found from a proposal for a soda tax of 14 cents per liter in the island. In the end, push-backs like these, masked as being in favor the consumer, are unfortunate examples of the political barriers facing public health, despite the deleterious effects for the population.

A Delicious Super Hero

Oh!, y ahora,  ¿Quien podra defenderme?
¡Yo! ¡El Chapulin Colorado!

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado.

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado

With these words, a new adventure of El Chapulin Colorado started each morning. This Mexican television series evokes memories of childhood to many of us who grew up in Latin American homes. I remember sitting down eating breakfast in front of the TV waiting to see the next conundrum this superhero was about to “solve”.

As a child in Puerto Rico little did I know that Chapulín was more than the name of the superhero. The term is derived from the náhuatl chapōlin, used to refer to jumping insects, such as grasshoppers. In the island we call them esperanzas which occasionally found their way to our home, seen as a sign of good fortunes to come, according to popular lore.

I still watch the show but not as often. Nowadays I enjoy the chapulín alongside a glass of mezcal

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano (Bar in Condesa, Mexico City)

These tiny critters are crunchy, with a salty and spicy taste, and light hints of lemon. And yes, their little legs may get stuck in your teeth, just as with any other food. Before reaching its place alongside a smoky and delightful glass of mezcal, they are washed, cooked in a comal, toasted and seasoned. They are also served in guacamole, tacos, or simply as a snack sold by street vendors in Mexico. Chapulines are sold alongside other insects like worms and tiny little fish similar to the ones you might find in a fishbowl.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

The idea of eating insects may evoke feelings of disgust in many of us. Insects are viewed as dangerous and dirty. Eating them, outside of their cultural context may be seen as a dare (remember Fear Factor?), or as a sign of being an adventuresome, cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive eater. Chapulines have fallen in the realm of the exotic and a “must try” alongside with Oaxaca as the foodie tourist destination identified with the traditional consumption of this insect.

Chapulines are more than a snack. They can be plagues, greatly harming food production. Eating them can be a coping mechanism to deal with their overabundance, while also bringing dietary variety and protein to rural areas (See for example, this initiative in Querétaro, Mexico). Nutritionally, chapulines are a wonderful and sustainable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B.

International nutrition organisms are promoting the consumption of insects as an excellent source of protein, as they are a sustainable source of protein, compared with cattle and other common animal flesh sources. Just last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report promoting the worldwide consumption of insects leading to a recent conference in the Netherlands promoting their potential to feed the world, along with a cookbook.  This new push has even generated the peer-reviewed Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, to start publication in 2015.

Could the chapulín move from an exotic accompaniment to my mezcal to the central piece of my dinner? Perhaps, with some guacamole and freshly made tortillas. Could I move beyond the toasted chapulín to stewed worms? That is another story…

Despite my current hesitation, insects are indeed part of the conversation for the future of food and for combating food insecurity. With population growth and worldwide increase in incomes, the demand for animal protein is ever increasing. The often quoted estimate of 9 billion people by 2030 along with increasing concerns over livestock production and the pollution of natural resources that comes with it calls to alternatives to our current dietary habits, and notions of what is “good” to eat. Insects can be part of the answer. Perhaps the Chapulín Colorado is a real-life hero after all.

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado – Enjoy!