With Thanksgiving now behind us and all the turkey leftovers have been made into soups and
sandwiches, we begin to think about what to serve for the Christmas Holidays. Most of us
think of the turkey as an all-American bird that is eaten once a year at Thanksgiving. Few of
us are really aware of how deeply American turkey really is or what a complicated journey it
took to our holiday tables.
Wild turkey was on the menu at what's considered the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth,
Mass., in 1621. A century and a half later, Benjamin Franklin declared the turkey "a true
original native of America.''
The turkey's origins, however, were not on the rocky coast of New England but in the
tropical heart of Mesoamerica, the pre-Columbian domain of my ancestors, the Maya, in what's
now Central America and Mexico. Perhaps 1,800 years before the Pilgrims hunted wild turkey,
the Maya domesticated the bird, serving it to their elite and using it in ceremonies for
healing, planting and praying for rain. The Aztec also raised turkeys. 16th century
Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún said this in his journal, about his experiences
with the Latin American turkey "It leads the meats; it is the master. It is tasty, fat,
Like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, chocolate and corn, turkeys were loaded onto Spanish
galleons and carried back to the mother country of Spain. Soon, the king of Spain decreed
that every returning ship was to bring back 10 turkeys, five males and five females. Turkey
was soon to become one of the most rapid successes as far as the adoption of New World
foodstuffs. The tough, stringy peacock was soon replaced by the turkey as the favorite dish
for banquets and holiday celebrations.
Turkey was also a popular feast food in Meso and Latin America. But there it was cut up in
pieces and cooked in sauces "en cazuela " -- in a stew pot. The roasting of the turkey is
European -- roasting an entire animal and bringing it to the table with pomp and ceremony.
So when the Pilgrims served American turkeys, whose turkey ancestors hailed from the central
Mexican plateau, they knew how to roast them because of the turkey trend that swept Europe
after the Spanish began importing the big bird -- from Mexico.
The impact of the turkey in Latin American cooking is reflected in recipes from all across
Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean:
- Turkey with Puerto Rican Flavors: this bird is distinguished by its brilliant red-gold
color. The secret is achiote seeds, produced by the annatto tree and used by indigenous
Caribbean peoples to make body paint. Spanish settlers adopted it as a cheap substitute for
saffron. The sweet plantain-based dressing is spiked with rum and accented with salty,
crunchy bits of fried salt pork.
- Cuban-Style Roast Turkey: The key ingredients of the sour orange baste and bacon wrap
show how Spanish imports (orange seeds and pigs arrived with Columbus) can enhance this
- Cuban Turkey Stuffing: The chestnuts in this dish are decidedly European, the cooked ham
quite Cuban. This subtle and sophisticated dish was typical of many recipes using both Latin
and European influences.
- Turkey Mole: mole poblano - Made with a number of different chilies, chocolate and ground
nut sauce. This is a classic example of Latin American "en cazuela" cooking.
- Ceia de Natal (Holiday Turkey): A more accurate translation is Christmas turkey. This
meal is typically Brazilian, as is the combination of fruit and meat. Canned peaches used in
this dish reflect a long-ago time when newly available canned fruits were considered the
height of elegance in Latin America.
- Pisco-Spiked Bread Stuffing: The hot peppers and potent pisco are obvious Peruvian
touches in this recipe.
- Last but not least is the Nolasco Family's favorite Christmas Holiday dish and my choice
for December's Recipe - Pavo Salvadoreño (Salvadoran Turkey).
As I'm writing this, my mouth is watering and I can't wait to get started cooking. Not
only are there a large number of turkey recipes available, turkey is one of the best
year-round meat values available. Don't just limit its use to the winter holidays.
I want to take this time to wish all of you a very Happy Holiday and may God bless you
all. Best wishes from all of the Nolasco-Rivers Family; Sylvia, Joe, Gabriel, and Lilian.
Buen Provecho. Sylvia
If you have any questions - please feel free to e-mail me at
Pavo Salvadoreño (Salvadoran Turkey)
This turkey dish can be served one of two ways:
1 whole turkey, 12 Pound
- Serve the turkey sliced as a roasted turkey. Use the gravy as a warm side dish with
mashed sweet potatoes. Or, my favorite way:
- Slice the turkey and serve it as an open-faced sandwich with a French Bread baguette,
slathered with the turkey sauce. - YES, this is a traditional Salvadoran dish, bread and all.
The open-faced sandwich has your choice of light or dark meat, 3 slices of tomatoes, 3 slices
of cucumber, 4 slices of radishes, 2 stems of watercress, and the sauce poured over the top
of the sandwich.
1 pound prunes
1 cup capers
1 cup white wine
8 whole white onions, sliced
6 whole green peppers, sliced
10 medium tomatoes, roasted
5 cups chicken stock
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Place whole turkey in a roasting rack and put in a roasting pan.
- Put all the ingredients in the pan to cook with the turkey.
- Cover the bird with foil and roast for a minimum of 2 hours until done. Check with meat
thermometer - 170 degrees.
- Remove turkey from pan.
- Pour off mixture in roasting pan, including turkey drippings, into a blender and liquify.
- Put the sauce into a bowl and serve as a salsa or gravy.