Ancient Maya Gave Thanks for Turkey Dinners Too

By celebrating Thanksgiving with a turkey dinner, the Maya of Belize are continuing a tradition that goes back for centuries before the birth of Christ, and this will be reflected in the menu of Belize’s top eco resort during the 2012 Chaa Creek Thanksgiving holiday week.

Chaa Creek’s head chef Mario Alejandro Mendez Rivera, who is intimately familiar with Maya cuisine, said that he wanted his Thanksgiving degustation menu to reflect the importance of turkey in the Maya diet from ancient times up to the present day.

“I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother in Guatemala using Maya recipes passed down through generations, and in the course of my career I’ve mixed the style of the Highland Maya with influences from western Belize and east Caribbean Maya.

“Also, here at Chaa Creek many of our staff members are Maya, and believe me, this keeps it real. Our kitchen and service staff, for example, will say something like ‘at home we use more cacao in this turkey meal’, or, ‘my grandmother uses fresh allspice leaves in that sauce,’ and that’s been a wonderful way to pick up different elements and nuances of this centuries old style of cooking. It continues to fascinate me,” he said.

The Lodge at Chaa Creek is located in an area often referred to as the Heartland of the Maya and is situated between the two huge ancient metropolises of Caracol in Belize and Tikal in Guatemala. Owners Mick and Lucy Fleming, who began Chaa Creek as a small farm in the late 1970s and learned many of their organic farming techniques from their Maya neighbours, have always had a keen interest in Maya culture.

And Chef Mario, as he’s known, is passionate about the health benefits of a Maya diet.

“We know that the ancient Maya had a very healthy diet and were able to feed huge populations for thousands of years, but many people have no idea how delicious it is,” he said. “For example turkey mole is a popular Mexican meal, but many people will be surprised to learn that cooking turkey with cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate, goes back thousands of years and was a Maya staple. It’s unique, very healthy and incredibly delicious,” he added.

The Maya began as hunter gatherers in Mesoamerica, but from 1800 BC the culture began expanding rapidly and developed sophisticated agricultural, aquaculture and animal husbandry techniques to feed populations as large as Caracol’s peak of some 180,000 thousand people. While meat was not central to their diet, they hunted rainforest wildlife and domesticated animals. Turkey, known as ulum, was a favourite domesticated and wild food.

Turkey was, and remains a Maya favourite in soups and other dishes, and Chef Mario said it will feature in a Chaa Creek Thanksgiving he expects will be “memorable”.

“Thanksgiving vacations at Chaa Creek are always a special combination of the traditional and the exotic, and this year, with the approach of the 2012 Maya Winter Solstice, we’ll be pulling out all stops. I love traditional turkey dinners, and am really looking forward to working with this wonderful Maya influence as well. With so many fresh ingredients from the Chaa Creek Maya Organic Farm and an abundance of turkeys to work with, I’m, already excited at the prospect of presenting something truly exceptional.

“Pumpkin in various forms was another Maya favourite, but rest assured we’ll also have the traditional pumpkin pies our guests are familiar with. In fact, I’m confident our Chaa Creek 2012 Thanksgiving guests will go away with memories of a truly unique presentation where the familiar meets the exotic to produce something exceptional. I’m looking forward to it,” Chef Mario said.

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