Your Mexican visitor today
The genetically mutated Meleagris gallopavo on your dinner table was first served to Europeans in 1519, at Cozumel, where Mayans, like the Wampoags a century later, would take pity on some hungry foreigners and serve them up a decent meal featuring what was a staple of the north American diet. Pedro d’Álvarado would begin his career in stealing treasures from the natives with a couple of the birds, which he mistook for peacocks: a native bird of Iran, and known to Europeans through contact with the Ottomans… i.e. Turks.
While the peacock is mostly an ornamental bird, our bird is quite a bit tastier (and has more meat), and our humble American bird was dubbed by the Spanish, “pavo”: peacock. The showy (and not particularly useful) peacock was promoted to “pavo real”… or, now, “royal turkey”.
The English, being late to the imperialism in the Americas game, were already somewhat familiar with the bird a century later, by which time they’d mixed up the dethroned Ottoman peacock with the Spanish word for the American bird… and dubbed it “turkey”. By the 18th century, the English were breeding them prodigiously, and by the 20th century … the toms having been bred for larger and larger and larger breasts are unable to breed the natural way… and those frustrated adolescents on your table probably welcome their fate as a relief.
In the countryside, most homes will still have a few hens and maybe a tom wandering around the yard…in their original glory. Politicians don’t always give away frozen ones at election time, but the live birds, though it’s technically illegal now for the pols to tell you the turkey is in exchange for your vote in the next election.
Here, while you see “pavo” on the labels in the supermarket, we remember it’s “our” bird, and call it by its nahuatl name, “guajolote”.