Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The turkey's pre-Columbian history

Our two northern neighbors recently celebrated their respective Thanksgiving days.  In both Canada and the United States roast turkey is the main dish and even the symbol for these annual feasts.
Surprise! The turkey, like the poinsettia of last week's column, is another of Mexico’s many gifts to the world.

Unlike other cradles of civilization, Mesoamerica had few domesticated animals.  The only domesticated fowl were the muscovy duck and the turkey.  Signs of turkey domestication in Maya sites such as Cobá dated about 100 BC to 100 AD. The signs include the construction of animal pens, healed long bone fractures in turkey bones found far from natural habitats, ritual burial, and the presence of large quantities of egg shells. Turkey bones have also been found as musical instruments and tools. 

Unlike today’s large-breasted and mostly grounded birds, early turkeys were strong flyers able to reach speeds of up to 90 kph (55 mph) for short distances. They could run 25-50 kph (15-30 mph)! This would have been a very lean and tough bird. Though turkeys were used by pre-Columbians for meat and egg consumption, there is good evidence they were prized primarily for their feathers, not their meat.  Like the shearing of sheep, one can pluck the feathers from the turkey and they will regrow.  Early Spaniards wrote about half-naked turkeys wandering around.  Feathers were used to make clothing, decorative headdresses, and weapons. Turkeys fed a maize diet became more desirable for their meat.

There were a number of varieties of turkey but even more Mesoamerican names for this prolific bird.  In 1941 Lawrence B. Kiddle claimed in an article titled “The Names for Turkey in the Modern Mexican Dialect” that he had found thirty names for the turkey – 26 still in use!   Even stretching etymology, the Inuit only have 20 words for snow.  Guajolote or pavo are currently the most common names though in some places it is still called ave de los ricos or bird of the rich.  

Some varieties of native turkeys were more resistant to domestication but could still be caged and were prized for their bright plumage.  Even today the Yucatan native ocellated turkey can be seen wandering through the ruins of the ancient cities such as Tikal, Toniná, and Bonampak.

For the pre-Columbians turkeys also had religious and ceremonial significance.  Archeologists have found buried remains of whole turkey skeletons, headless turkeys, even turkeys buried alongside humans.  By some accounts the Aztec turkey god, Chalchiuhtotolin  (nahuatl for jade turkey) was one of the nahuals (animal manifestations) of Tepeyollotl, a major Aztec god.  Tepeyollotl is more typically depicted in his nagual manifestation as a jaguar.

The Spanish returned to Europe with this new food where it quickly replaced the difficult-to-eat peacock on European banquet tables. Each ship returning to Spain was ordered to take five male and five female turkeys.  It is likely the Aztecs had also used the turkey as a banquet dish and that Cortez himself may have enjoyed turkey mole on a visit to the royal palace. 

Mole (from the nahuatl mulli, molle or chimulli describing an indigenous sauce usually with a chili pepper base) comes in all colors and all flavors.  In any large central market you can see the blaze of colors of prepared moles.  Outside of Mexico the best known mole is the legendary mole poblano originating in Puebla in the Convent of Santa Rosa.  Poor nuns panicked when they were surprised by the visit of the archbishop (or was it the viceroy?).  They pooled their meager resources (including chocolate) into a sauce, killed an old turkey, prayed a lot, and then served the first guajolote con mole poblano to great acclaim.   Because mole poblano contains some European ingredients it is considered an example of mestizaje cooking. 
Guajolote con mole poblano remains a favorite Mexican dish.  No Mexican wedding is complete without it.  There are hundreds of variations of the recipe and some recipes contain no ingredients not available before the conquest.  It is a dish particularly enjoyed at Christmas.  ¡Buen provecho!.

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