CommentaryFood & DrinksPeruvian Food

The Tradition of Turkey for Christmas and New Year’s

At the Christmas or New Year’s Table a browned turkey, recently taken from the oven, is increasingly demanded in Peru. Though Newspapers often describe this as traditional, there is a limited time depth to the tradition and it is not universally consumed over the space of Peru.

The majority of the country’s Turkeys, 90% according to one report, are consumed in the nation’s capital of Lima, far beyond its proportion of the national population. Even in Lima consuming Turkey is limited to the better off classes, those with the resources and the leisure to promote themselves as the Peruvians par excellence, unless they need to refer to an exotic and comfortably remote past of Incas, Moches, and such.

In Cuzco, people talk about turkey and whether that is what they will eat or not.  Int his way they relate themselves to a claim to Peruvian tradition and either mark themselves as following it or being different.  Some will also redefine the tradition by observing that the growth in turkey consumption in Cusco is among Limeños, people from Lima, who have migrated here to work.

In Cuzco, consumption of turkey is further associated with employment in large, formal businesses that give turkeys to their employees as part of their Christmas basket, a gift of food stuff and more at Christmas. The bird is too expensive for most people to buy otherwise, although I must note that I saw a gym offering a free turkey for the purchase of a membership.

As a result, it is available as a status symbol, something that marks life in formal, institutionalized society made up of belonging to large enterprises, having credit cards, and being able to buy regularly at the Mall.

The turkey that people consume here comes from the United States, originally. The bird has a curious history, in that though a wild fowl in much of the Americas, it was the domesticated Mexican bird that made its way to Europe and then returned to America as a fowl appropriate for feasts and celebrations.

The current growth and promotion of turkey consumption as traditional in Peru is related to the growth of its large scale poultry industry. Prior to the mid-twentieth century most poultry was grown on small farms or in the yards and patios of people’s homes as birds, rabbits, and guinea pigs still are in more working class neighborhoods of Cuzco and in its rural hinterland.

In 1938, a Japanese Peruvian, Julio Sopichi Ikeda, began to raise poultry commercially on the coast, in what is now the Lima neighborhood of Surquillo. He bought 39 ducks to start. By 1965 they were expanding out of Lima into the nearby valley of Lurín and then Chilca. In 1971, his family company, San Fernando, began to offer turkey commercially. (This historical sketch is from their website

San Fernando is argued to be the largest commercial poultry producer in Peru, which itself is among the top twenty nations in aviculture.

Much historical detail needs to be added to this overview, but for now it provides a useful timeline. Prior to 1971, turkey consumption would have to be at a much, much smaller scale than today.  People would have either had to raise their own turkeys or accurate them from small farmers near Lima. Only after 19712, with industrial production, could eating a turkey at Christmas become massive and widespread, even in the city of Lima.

We can argue the custom of roast turkey at the center of the family’s Christmas feast is still primarily a tradition in Lima that is spreading out in its class system and hence also sending feelers into the Peruvian hinterland, through mechanisms such as we have seen above.  The vast majority of Peru’s Turkey industry is still located near Lima. Despite the possibility of developing regional markets, and taking advantage of regional economies, this industry has yet to solidly do so. It is highly concentrated in and around the national capital.

I wrote above that the Peruvian turkey is a bird that originates in the US because the San Fernando company acquired its original commercial stock from the United States and the Peruvian avicultural industry is is integrated into networks that also involve the North American poultry industry.

Other than mentioning that this originally Mexican bird returned to the New World trailing clouds of feasts and other ceremonies, I have not looked at its use as a festive bird in Peru. At the moment I must leave that for future writing, other than just to note that the word pavo, used for turkey, is not the Mexican word guajolote.  Instead it expands the existence of a Spanish word, pavo real, for peacocks (the royal pavo) with the new American import which the Portuguese did more to spread than did the Spanish. Hence, the turkey may well have been associated with elite, festive tables and elite birds from the beginning.

Another curiosity:  despite the Mexican origin of the turkey and the current stock coming from he Untied States, the Portuguese called the turkey a gallinha de Peru, a Peruvian hen. The word Peru was commonly used to speak of the Americas in general, apparently, and not the Pacific coast region that held high civilizations. There are so many ironies in the history of turkey!

Festive tables throughout the country, but especially in Cuzco, will prefer lechón (roast young pig) or guinea pig. Each of these has a different history from that of poultry, the turkey or the increasingly dominant chicken (pollo)—to be distinguished from hen (gallina).  The pollo is part of the large scale poultry industry and is a young bird, while the gallina still tends to be home grown and is a more mature, and hence more flavorful if sometimes tough bird. Lechón carries memories of the Spanish conquest while guinea pig in strongly local.

On New Year’s in Cuzco people will still prefer lechón, a pork roast that takes a day of curing before it can be put into one of the many commercial ovens that dot the city.  Nevertheless, turkey is at the door and knocking to be let on the table as something “traditional”.

<1On the Turkey as a festive bird, see Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Chapter 6, “Who are you calling a Turkey” (WW Norton and Company 2014).

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