The late Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme claimed to have invented the turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) in the 1970s. He became synonymous with the dish—and even trademarked the name in 1986 (Turducken™). Yet, there are plenty of skeptics.
When Amanda Hesser inquired into the turducken’s history for the New York Times in 2002, food writer John T. Edge told her: “It strikes me as a dish invented by men in a hunt camp.” Muddying the waters further, Wikipedia cites Dr. Gerald R. LaNasa, a New Orleans surgeon, as turducken’s creator. Go figure.
While the origin of turducken might forever be shrouded in mystery (much like the hamburger, the pavlova, and other essential foods), it is indeed part of a long history of “engastration,” the practice of stuffing and cooking one animal inside another.
Reports of engastration go all the way back to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. It may have started with the cockentrice, a monstrosity made by stitching together the head and upper torso of a pig with a capon, found on feast menus from the fifteenth century. Dating back to the Roman Empire, the fictional Satyricon featured the (possibly fictional as well) Trojan Boar, a thousand pound hog stuffed with live birds.
Its heyday wasn’t until eighteenth and nineteenth century, where stuffing meat inside of other meats was a way to show off one’s wealth and impress guests in Europe. A recipe for one of the most famous (or infamous) versions of engastration was published in 1807 by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière. In his Almanach des Gourmands, considered to be the world’s first serial food journal, a recipe for rôti sans pareil (“the roast without equal”) called for 17 birds to be stuffed into one another and roasted. The Yorkshire Christmas Pie, a combination of turkey, goose, pheasants, partridges, woodcocks, snipes, grouse, and widgeons (not to mention bacon, ham, truffles, and calves feet) wrapped in a crust and baked, was served at Windsor Castle in 1858. But the west isn’t the only place where you’ll find engastration.
The Kiviak, a traditional winter dish consumed by the Inuit in Greenland is a seal stuffed with 400 to 500 birds, fermented out of doors under a pile of rocks for anywhere from 3 to 18 months and then eaten raw. The Guinness Book of World Records gave the title of “Largest Meal” to the so-called Bedouin Wedding Feast, a whole camel stuffed with a lamb stuffed with 20 chickens stuffed with even more eggs, nuts, and spices.
If you thought the urge to stuff was solely limited to carnivores, you were wrong. Sweets have found their way into the historical lineage of engastration as well. In 2009, home baker Charles Phoenix created the “cherpumple,” a three layer cake with pies baked into each layer. Dubbed the “turducken” of cakes, the cherpumple is composed of a cherry pie baked into a white cake, a pumpkin pie baked inside a yellow cake and an apple pie baked inside a spice cake, and then the whole thing is coated with cream cheese frosting. It takes three days to make because each layer must cool before being baked into another.
More: We made a cherpumple—see!
Finding one’s inner Dr. Frankenstein? Maybe. A primal instinct to show off who’s on top of the food chain? Perhaps. But, let’s face it: Whatever the psychological impulse, the whole undertaking of using ingredients that could stand alone as their own dishes and then putting them together like so many puzzle pieces also has a geeky intellectual appeal. Engastration is like following a meta-recipe: a recipe of recipes.
For the modern gastronome, turducken has emerged as the ultimate in holiday culinary projects. With all of the deboning and stuffing required—not to mention eight hours or more of cooking, basting, and worrying, it is the closest thing to a culinary marathon.
The turducken is likely the most famous form of engastration, so what did its supposed creator, Paul Prudhomme, think of the situation—the dish for which he is famed and will be forever associated with? In a 2008 CNN interview, Prudhomme practically swooned as he waxed about what it’s like to taste turducken. “Can you imagine how it would feel to have your fantasy girlfriend in front of you and you’re just going to get your first kiss,” Prudhomme told Anderson Cooper. “That’s the way it feels.”
Josh Friedland (aka Ruth Bourdain) has a new book, Eatymology; purchase it here.
Turkey by Bobbi Lin; Rôti sans pareil by Joe Burger; cherpumple by Food52; squash images by Linda Xiao.