How the Turkey was Introduced to Turkey—From México

Neil Gerlowski,

Editor, Vallarta Tribune


When Hernán Cortés, his conquistadores, and their indigenous allies took Tenochtitlán in 1521—a full hundred years before the pilgrims of Plymouth celebrated their first Thanksgiving—they encountered vast tianguis (open-air markets) with an outstanding variety of exotic fare from throughout the Aztec Empire. Among the domesticated animals associated with their captive’s extraordinary cuisine were axolotl (a salamander), xoloitzcuintli (a dog), iguanas, quail, and what the natives called wueh-xōlō-tl. These would have all been found grilled on comales, stuffed in tamales, wrapped in corn tortilla tacos, and cooked in soups and stews.


The last on this list of animal delicacies is what much of the world now knows as “turkey,” although in Mexico, the common term for this animal (or at least its wild relative) remains “guajolote,” a word little changed from its original in the Aztec language of Nahuatl. So where did the confusion set in?


Spanish traders soon introduced this domestic bird (Meleagris gallopavo domesticus) to the Mediterranean, then dominated by the Ottoman Empire, founded by the Turkish ruler Osman I, little more than 200 years prior. The Turks and their Arabic subjects and allies had already been trading the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), originally from Africa.


By the time domesticated turkeys were introduced to England, its name was associated with Turkey instead of Mexico, its place of origin. Other European names for the bird evidence further confusion with French, Polish, and Russian names associating it with India (where many first believed Columbus to have reached) and its Portuguese name associating it with Peru. In Spain, it became referred to as “pavo” for its association with Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), which then became called “pavo real” (royal pavo) to distinguish it from the less colorful newcomer to the poultry markets.


Although the puritan pilgrims would find wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in the forests they settled, these were far less accessible by way of their unrifled gun barrels than the domesticated birds brought with them from England, by way of the Mediterranean, of American origin.


Ironically, except for the Yucatán where it is featured in dishes like Relleno negro (black turkey stew), turkey has been largely replaced in Mexico by chicken as the staple domestic fowl in the national cuisine.


So as you feast on turkey this Thursday, you’re not only celebrating a US and Canadian tradition; you’re reviving an ancient component of Mexico’s culinary past.