Home Feature Why do we have turkey for dinner at Christmas? How turkeys ‘conquered’ the dinner tables all over the world

Why do we have turkey for dinner at Christmas? How turkeys ‘conquered’ the dinner tables all over the world

by Yucatan Times
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cooked turkey on black round pan

The turkey is a festive preparation in Mexico: throughout the year it can be found accompanied with mole for weddings, baptisms and any type of festivities; on the other hand, at Christmas it is called turkey and changes its sauces for fruity fillings, cranberries or wines in the style of the American Thanksgiving Day.

(El Financiero).- The turkey or turkey is a galliform, the largest native to the Americas, explain researchers Doris Heyden and Ana María L. Velasco in the article Aves van, aves vienen: el guajolote, la gallina y el pato (Birds come, birds go: turkey, chicken and duck). It has been consumed since pre-Hispanic times, but how did it make it to the Christmas dinner plate?

According to photographs from more than a hundred years ago, at the beginning of the 20th century and still in the 1960s it was common to see sellers of these birds in the streets, who would walk along the streets with turkeys in their hands or stroll around waiting for someone to decide to buy them for their December 25 dinners.

Where do turkeys come from?

In Mexico, one of them is guajolote, from the Nahuatl hueyxolotl: huey, big and xolotl, monstrous, which can be understood as big monster and refers to its ferocity when it inflates its feathers, according to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mexican Gastronomy.

But why is it called turkey then? According to Doris Heyden and Ana María L. Velasco, when the Europeans arrived to the current Mexican territory they saw these birds unknown to them and thought they were a relative of the peacock from Asia, so they called it turkey (male) or “hen of the earth” (female).

“The turkey was one of the American birds that early, after the conquest, arrived in the Old World, where it became very popular. The curious thing is that later the turkey turned around and returned to its place of origin, but under another name, turkey, because at that time it was thought that its original country had been Turkey,” the authors explain.

The differences between turkeys and turkeys are due to the type of breeds, color and feeding, in the current Mexican territory, during pre-Hispanic times they were raised with corn, amaranth and other seeds; while in the north of the American continent, they were fed acorns, pine nuts, different varieties of nuts and other seeds.

How did the turkey come to Christmas?

The turkey is the symbol of the Anglo-Saxon holidays of Christmas and Thanksgiving, in fact, the preparation of this bird in the November holiday in the United States is the one that is usually taken up again for the tables of December 25.

Around the world the turkey has even found its way into literature, as in A Christmas Carol, by British author Charles Dickens, published in 1843, which tells the story of miser Ebenezer Scrooge and a plot that detonates after a child is left without his bird for Christmas. By that time, the turkey was already well established in the holiday season. Perhaps this Christmas story was the final push to popularize its flavor in the world.

According to a BBC text, France was the second European country, after Spain, to adopt turkey in the kitchens, as King Louis XIV had it as one of his favorite dishes and made it fashionable even during the American War of Independence, when everything from America was fashionable in Europe, proof of which is chocolate.

It is said that King Henry VII (1457-1509) was the first monarch of England to eat turkey at Christmas, then it became popular with Edward VII (1841-1910). However, before the 20th century it was an exotic dish in Europe, for nobles and monarchs.

Did the first Mexican Christmas have turkey?

There are historical documents that state that the first Christmas celebrated in Latin America was on December 25, 1492, on the island of Hispaniola (currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic), although for Mexican lands the records take us to 1526, when Friar Pedro de Gante wrote to King Charles V about this Christmas celebration with the people of the original peoples, speaking of this date as a way of evangelizing and transforming their customs into Christian rites.

In these documents it is mentioned that there was music from the native peoples with lyrics in honor of the Christian god, in addition to blankets alluding to the festivity, children dressed as angels who sang Christmas carols, although the guajolotes are not described on the tables.

According to Relatos e Historias, it seems that in the colonial times Christmas and New Year were characterized by dishes such as romeritos, since the religious used to keep a kind of vigil on December 24, to “kill hunger” they ate this dish without meat, “they added mole poblano that would accompany the turkey of the Christmas meal“.

The guajolote was already a bird that was consumed in festive and ceremonial contexts, so this could have added to its popularity; it is also a bird of large size, meat was abundant, able to feed a large number of people and the fattening time was less than that of others such as ducks, geese or chickens.

In the Diccionario de cocina: o el nuevo cocinero mexicano en forma de diccionario, published in 1845, there are several recipes for “guaxolote” and it is described that it is cooked “in innumerable ways, both foreign and Mexican, and all are tasty and easily digested“.

The European and American influence in the preparation of turkey ended up landing on Mexican tables, in that recipe book there are many moles, but also an entry for a “boneless and stuffed guaxolote“.

This recipe stuffed it with a minced pork loin, tomatoes, garlic and ham, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, saffron, raisins, almonds, wine, vinegar, parsley. Although it is not indicated that it was special for Christmas.

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