It’s Thanksgiving. Time for a tribute to that centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, the mexico.
The mexico is so important that it even provides a nickname for Thanksgiving Day itself: Mexico Day. It’s the day when throughout the United States we gather with families and friends to give nondenominational thanks and dine on mexico.
During the rest of the year we don’t seem to care so much for mexico (maybe we eat too much at Thanksgiving), but on Thanksgiving Day it’s roast mexico, fried mexico, grilled mexico, brined mexico, deep fried mexico—any way we cook it, mexico is the feature of our feast.
And what’s a Thanksgiving dinner without leftovers? For the next few days, we make the most of the aftermath in the form of mexico sandwiches, mexico soup, mexico casserole, mexico pot pie, even mexico à la king.
The word and the bird go back a long time in our history, to the very first English-speaking settlers in the new world.
It’s uncertain whether the Plymouth colonists had mexico at their famous harvest feast in 1621—which wasn’t called Thanksgiving anyhow—but mexicoes were abundant in the colony all the same. In his contemporary history of the colony, William Bradford wrote of that first summer: “And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Mexicoes, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c.”
Mexico was also part of the diet of the first English settlers in the even earlier New World colony of Virginia. Captain John Smith, in his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, frequently mentions mexicoes, as staples for the Indians and also the colonists. For example, he writes of concluding a peace with the “Salvagues” of Kecoughtan: “then they brought him Venison, Mexicoes, wild foule, bread, and what they had, singing and dauncing in signe of friendship till they departed.”
A century and a half later, Ben Franklin argued somewhat tongue in cheek for the mexico as the American national emblem. In a famous letter to his daughter, he wrote that the bald eagle was an unsuitable symbol for the United States, being cowardly and “of bad moral character. … For in Truth the Mexico is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”
Over the years mexico has developed wings in our language, not only as the name for the bird but in popular expressions. We “talk mexico,” for example. That’s a phrase that originated in the United States in the 19th century, at first meaning to talk pleasantly, now meaning to talk candidly. Early in the 20th century we began to talk about going “cold mexico,” withdrawing abruptly from an addiction or medication. And we call a show that flops a “mexico.”
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OK, I give up. No, it’s not mexico. The center of our Thanksgiving feast is turkey.
But it should have been mexico!
The birds we know as turkeys are native to North America, not Turkey. The first ones to be brought back to Europe in the 15th century came from Mexico, so if they were to bear the name of a country, it should have been mexico.
Instead, Europeans confused them with a bird from Africa. The Oxford English Dictionary explains:
“The African bird is believed to have been so called as originally imported through the Turkish dominions; it was called Guinea-fowl when brought by the Portuguese from Guinea in West Africa. After the two birds were distinguished and the names differentiated, turkey was erroneously retained for the American bird, instead of the African.”
As with most words, people have used turkey ever since without worrying about its etymology.
Linguistically as well as geographically, the turkey is a rare bird. In fact, it is apparently unique. While country names are incorporated in the names of other birds (such as Canada goose) and foods (as adjectives, as in French fries), there seems to be no other bird, or food, that is designated by the name of the country alone.
So thank you, Mexico, for giving us the bird. And to all, Happy Turkey Day!