Mexico is the country that first introduced the turkey to the world. Turkey meat is heavily featured … [+] in the gastronomy of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. This photo shows panuchos de pavo (left) at the Fonda 99.99 restaurant in Mexico City.
In the U.S., November is the month of the turkey. Nearly 50 million turkeys are consumed in U.S. homes on Thanksgiving. In popular culture in the U.S., the turkey holds a special place. Overall, in the U.S. the turkey is still seen as an American icon, the centerpiece of the original Thanksgiving feast. But, when it comes to the origins the gobbler, however, Mexico does have reason to quibble. It was Mexico, after all, that introduced the bird to Europe and the rest of the world.
In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was one of the first Europeans to see the turkey in Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s palace. Moctezuma gave Cortes and his men a gift of over one thousand turkeys. To the Spanish, the turkey looked like a majestic peacock, but with plainer colors. They called it the pavo, a reference to the pavo real, the Spanish word for peacock.
During this first era of globalization, the Mexican turkey was exported out to countries around the world. Seafaring Arab traders from the Ottoman empire played a big role in moving goods to Europe. The traders from Constantinople sold a number of large birds that were commonly referred to in Europe as “Turkey birds” for the traders who delivered them. In the early 1500s, large Mexican turkey birds were being shipped and sold in Spain, Italy, and England.
As the Mexican bird made its way to dinner tables in Europe, it lost any reference to its point of origin and became known as the turkey. Even in Turkey itself, the bird was misnamed, referred to as a hindi for its resemblance of an Indian peacock. Even in modern Turkish the turkey is called the “India bird.”
Today, in Hebrew, Dutch, the Scandinavian languages and French the turkey has names that refer to India rather than Mexico. And, even in India in modern hindi the bird is called the Peru, which correctly identifies its original point-of-origin in the Americas, but still ends up ignoring Mexico.
In the U.S. the most commonly eaten breed of turkey, the Broad Breasted White Turkey, is generally understood to be a hybrid of local indigenous turkey from the U.S. cross-bred with “European” turkeys. What’s lost is that the turkey is not indigenous to Europe and that the turkeys most families serve in the U.S. likely share some genetic material with the Mexican turkeys that Aztecs domesticated and shared with the Spanish.
In Mexico, turkey is commonly referred to as pavo. But, locals often called it “guajolote,” an indigenous nahautl language word that means “big monster.” Today in Mexico, guajolote is eaten in torta sandwiches and is heavily featured in the gastronomy of the Yucatan peninsula where it’s served along with spicy habanero pepper sauces, and in the state of Puebla where roasted guajolote is served with mole sauce. In Mexico City, a number of charming, century-old restaurants including El Rey del Pavo and La Casa del Pavo serve turkey “torta” sandwiches.
In Mexico City a number of charming, old-school restaurants serve turkey “torta” sandwiches all year … [+] long. La Casa del Pavo in the historic center is pictured here.
Today in Mexico, the guajolote is still a more of a specialty item than a primary source of protein, but it is fondly characterized as a distinctly Mexican bird.
But, it’s no longer totally accurate to describe the turkeys eaten in Mexico as totally local or heirloom Mexican turkeys. Early European settlers in Massachusetts brought domesticated (Mexican) turkeys with them from England but also hunted and ate local wild turkeys. Today the overwhelming majority of the guajolotes that are eaten in Mexico are imported from the U.S. or are varieties such as the Nicholas 700 that trace their ancestry through breeds that mix indigenous U.S. turkeys with Mexican turkeys that were imported from Europe.
So, the turkey today certainly has Mexican origins, but also owes much of its current form to the forces of globalization and cross-cultural exchange. Today Mexican supermarkets sell imported turkeys from U.S. brands such as Butterball and Pilgrims. Restaurants including La Rambla and Fonda 99.99 sell a variety of turkey dishes throughout the year including tortas de pavo and pavo relleno negro (turkey stewed in fire-charred chile pepper sauce.) A few stores, farms, and restaurants might offer customers heirloom Mexican turkeys but there is no real movement to preserve and protect indigenous Mexican varieties of turkey. Right now in Mexico and the U.S. almost all turkeys trace their roots back to indigenous turkeys that were domesticated by the Aztecs and wild turkeys that lived in the eastern U.S.
One of the best turkey dishes to try in Mexico is pavo relleno negro, a dish from the Yucatan … [+] peninsula. The jet black sauce gets its color from the fire-charred dried chile peppers used to make it. This dish is served at the Fonda 99.99 in Mexico City.
During a recent podcast conversation, author David Lida explained, “I think [the situation of the cross-bred genetics of U.S.-Mexican turkeys] is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. There’s an enormous symbiosis between these two countries and turkeys are just another example of that.”
But, if there’s one key takeaway people should understand, it’s that most turkeys consumed in the U.S. on Thanksgiving do trace back some of their roots to guajolotes from Mexico.
So, this Thanksgiving, perhaps we should all say gracias to Mexico for the turkey.
Check out the full discussion of the Mexican roots of the Thanksgiving turkey here.


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