The bird is the word: Mexican pavo, guajolote, totole in the oven

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

First of a Two-Part Holiday Turkey Feature

Once again, the time to talk turkey has arrived, and in Mexico this can inspire quite a bit of talk indeed. Over thirty words for the bird have been used at one time or another in various parts of the country, twenty-one of which were still in use when Dr. Lawrence B. Kiddle wrote “The Names for Turkey in the Modern Mexican Dialect” in 1941. This did not even include the six different names used by the Zapotecs, not to mention variations that found their way to Veracruz via the islands of the Carribbean and to Southern Mexico by way of Central America.

At times called el ave de los ricos – the bird of the rich – turkey has nevertheless been consumed by nearly all classes and during all known historical periods by the people of Mesoamerica. It is one of only two species of fowl (the other being the muscovy duck) to have been domesticated before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. The earliest bones of meleagris gallopavo – domesticated turkey – to have been found so far date from between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D. in Tehuacan, in what is now southern Puebla.

Although the plateau of central Mexico was its original natural range, the domesticated turkey was widespread throughout Mexico and Central America by the time Columbus arrived and encountered it in what is now Honduras. In what may have been the fastest-rising gastronomical popularity of all New World products, turkey quickly replaced the stringy European peacock on banquet tables, and each ship returning to Spain was ordered to bring five male and five female turkeys as part of the cargo.

This use of turkey as a banquet dish had already been practiced by the Aztecs for centuries. The bird was held in such high esteem that a religious festival honoring it was held every two hundred days. On the day of the celebration, people arose before dawn to pave the streets with the collected shells of turkey chicks that had hatched during that period of time. In Tenochtitlán itself – now Mexico City – and outlying areas, so much turkey was consumed that Motolinía, in his “History of the Indians of New Spain”, tells us that in one suburban market, Tepeyacac, over 8,000 turkeys were sold every five days. One hundred turkeys were sent daily to the court of the poet-king Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco.

The Maya, on the other hand, continued to rely on a species of wild turkey – meleagris ocellata – commonly found on the Yucatan, which they captured in the forest and fattened in pens. All of the turkey, including blood, broth and flesh, was of extreme ritualistic importance to the Maya; to this day, turkey boiled in corn gruel is the food eaten at cofradía – religious confraternity – celebrations in the highland Maya villages.

Whether known as pavo, guajolote, totole, or by any one of its myriad other names, this bird continues to be the food of choice to be served on celebratory occasions in Mexico. In Puebla and Oaxaca, mole de guajolote is de rigeur at weddings, while turkey in chilmole, a dark, delicious spice sauce, is a common festival dish in the Yucatan. For those who have been considering a variation on the holiday bird, the following recipes may intrigue, tempt, or downright convince you to do so.

Information on the safe handling of turkey, from thawing to cooking, can be found on the web.


Published or Updated on: November 1, 1999 by Karen Hursh Graber © 1999
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