Behold — the turkey! 

An ancient custom still anchors the festive table

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Unfortunately, like so many North American species, pure wild turkey stocks are nearly extinct. Most of the wild turkeys found today in carefully conserved areas are mixed with domesticated stock. But with some luck you can spot one in the wild not that far from Whistler as they still roam central Washington.

Central America is home to the other species of turkey, the ocellated turkey, which is smaller than the wild turkey of North America and the bird that first entered Europe.

According to Food: A Culinary History, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, one of the earliest accounts of a turkey being cooked for a European feast is of a banquet given by Catherine de' Medici at the bishopirc of Paris in 1549. On that festive occasion 70 "Indian chickens" were served along with seven "Indian roosters."

Turkeys, says Flandrin, were readily accepted from the moment they arrived in the Old World because large birds were already being served on aristocratic tables, including some we might find questionable today, such as cormorants, storks, cranes, swans, herons and peacocks.

Pilgrim Thanksgiving aside, it's still easy to see how these mighty birds came to grace our two most important Canadian feast days, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only are they decorative, delicious tasting and ideal for feeding many people at once, turkeys signify wealth, status and aristocracy.

This Christmas, Nesters Market at Whistler will sell around 500 turkeys bound for the feast table. Canadians, overall eat some 350 million pounds of turkey each year, most of it at Thanksgiving and Christmas — a shame, really, since it's such a healthy, tasty, reasonably priced meat and so easy to cook with any time of year.

While 99 per cent of these birds will be cooked traditionally — meaning stuffed and roasted in the oven — if you want to break out of the Christmas box, you might want to try an alternative to spice things up. Mexicans traditionally prepare their turkey with a fragrant molé sauce.

The Whole Chile Pepper Book has a recipe for same, as well as a mean tlaloc-chile stew (the Mayan god of rain and fertility was tlaloc, the turkey), and a superb smoked turkey dish with orange Cascabel chile sauce (see below).

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