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.
Mentions 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.
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.
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.”
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)…
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.
Sources / Further reading:
- “Turkey (bird)“, Encyclopedia Britannica
- Aranda Mena, OS (2013) “El Guajolote, olvidado simbolo mexicano”, Relatos de la Naturaleza.
- “Guajolote: Ave con origen mexicano”, Tierra Fertil.
- Moskin, J (2018), “The First Thanksgivings”, NYT