The turkey is a native of North America and Mexico. It was first domesticated in Mexico over a thousand years ago. While in Spanish a turkey is generally called pavo, from its official Latin name, Meleagris gallopavo, the name guajolote comes from the Mexican nahuatl language. The only other unique species of turkey lives in the Yucatan peninsula and is called the ocellated turkey.
Turkeys were first imported to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century. It got its name, turkey, because the people in Europe thought the birds were coming by way of Turkey, which at the time had also been importing Guinea Hen from Africa. At the time both birds were simply referred to as turkey foul.
According to Heriberto García Rivas’ book, Cocina prehispánica mexicana: la comida de los antiguos mexicanos, the three domesticated animals of ancient Mexico were turkeys, dogs and bees. Turkey was one of the French king Luis XIV’s favorite dishes. But it was later, after the U.S. became independent and everything “American” became fashionable in Europe, that turkey became the preferred foul for the dinner tables of the wealthy. According to García Rivas, the turkey even replaced the roasted goose as a favorite in Great Britain. And almost in all of Europe it replaced lamb as the choice meat for Christmas dinner. In Mexico, the traditional turkey dinner is guajolote con mole.
But the 45 million or so turkeys that will be sold this Thanksgiving will never taste the way turkey tasted in those days. Today’s mass produced birds are nothing like the real thing. The animals we buy at the grocery store are called Broad Breasted White and have been selectively bred and genetically modified to be huge, and with such large breasts, they couldn’t even reproduce if they wanted to.
According to a New York Times article, mass produced turkeys spend their entire lives in windowless barns with clipped beaks and lamps turned on 24/7 in order to keep them gorging on a corn-based mash and large amounts of antibiotics to fatten them up as fast as possible. The meat is so flavorless that after they’re butchered they’re injected with vegetable oils and saline solution to enhance the flavor.
In previous centuries, and in Spain in particular, it was customary to feed the turkeys nuts, almonds, fruits and raisins months before butchering the animal. The diet enhanced the taste of the turkey and gave the meat a delicious flavor. Christmas turkeys were even fed wine and candy.
History of turkey in America: Thanksgiving
So what about Thanksgiving? That’s a strange holiday. It’s a day to thank… well, that depends on who you ask. Over the centuries people all over the world have come together to give thanks for a good harvest, good weather, surviving another year, and so on. The typical narrative of the American Thanksgiving happened in 1621 when the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims came together in peace and shared their bounty, which in reality consisted of mostly deer, fish and corn. No turkey.
But the first Thanksgiving in America was actually in 1541 when Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his expedition celebrated Thanksgiving in Palo Duro, Texas.
Thanksgiving as a holiday in the U.S. only became a national holiday in 1863 when President Lincoln officially proclaimed it a national holiday to be observed on the last Thursday of November. But while giving thanks during the holiday, you should consider thanking Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, one of the first American women novelists and author of the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” spent 40 years trying to convince the government to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. She was also largely influential in building the “official” Thanksgiving menu that included stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie.