Image by Joe Burger
To most people, the turducken, a solid slab of flesh created by stuffing a turkey with a duck, and that duck in turn with a chicken, epitomizes the egregious complexity and gluttonous obsession with meat that makes up a large part of modern American cuisine. But most people are pussies. In the historical world of engastration (stuffing animals inside other animals) and chimera (melding animals together) cooking, this 15-pound bird-block is about as interesting as a flaccid boiled hotdog. The true king of culinary absurdity comes from L’almanach des gourmands, an 1807 cookbook written by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimond de la Reyniere, a man so outlandish he faked his own death to see who would attend his funeral. His creation was called the rôti sans pareil—the roast without equal—and it is everything that has made the half-dead art of engastration increasingly popular today: ambitious, ostentatious, and alluringly, inevitably delicious.
His recipe calls for a bustard stuffed with a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a pheasant stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck stuffed with a guinea fowl stuffed with a teal stuffed with a woodcock stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a plover stuffed with a lapwing stuffed with a quail stuffed with a thrush stuffed with a lark stuffed with an ortolan bunting stuffed with a garden warbler stuffed with an olive stuffed with an anchovy stuffed with a single caper, with layers of Lucca chestnuts, force meat and bread stuffing between each bird, stewed in a hermetically sealed pot in a bath of onion, clove, carrots, chopped ham, celery, thyme, parsley, mignonette, salted pork fat, salt, pepper, coriander, garlic, and “other spices,” and slowly cooked over a fire for at least 24 hours.
For those not keeping track, that’s 20 layers, 17 of them birds, and a grand total of 18 creatures that had to die (assuming only one pig would be used to make the force meat, chopped ham, and salted pork fat) for the amusement of some turn-of-the-19th century dandies. And if that seems impossible, that’s because it is—today at least. Not because it’s scientifically impossible or there’s a lack of eager chefs in this world, but because many of the birds are now hard to find and kill. The bustard, for example, is on the brink of endangerment, and the consumption of ortolan bunting—a force-fed bird, killed by drowning in Armagnac, then parted from its feathers and feat and eaten freshly fried in one bite—is incredibly illegal and considered by some to be an affront to God. Despite that, ortolans still find their way to tables of the wealthy more than anyone wishes to admit, and those determined enough to find the desired ingredients for a rôti sans pareil could do so if they wanted. But of those professional chefs in the world who recreate old engastration recipes like this, none seem eager to use such blatantly illegal or unobtainable ingredients.
In the grand scope of food history, though, the rôti’s not so outlandish. There are recipes dating back to the 5th century for things like the scholar Macrobius’s Roman Trojan Boar: a pig “made pregnant with other animals and enclosed within as the Trojan horse was made pregnant with armed men.” The rôti itself was said to be based upon a similarly dated Roman recipe for a cow stuffed with a pig, goose, duck, and chicken. But this wasn’t just a piece of Roman heritage. There are tales of a Bedouin dish of chickens stuffed with rice and hard-boiled eggs crammed into a lamb, then stuffed into a whole slain camel roasted over a charcoal pit with nuts. Perhaps that tradition followed the Arab Muslims into Andalusia, where a 13th century Andalusian cookbook reports a cow stuffed with a lamb, goose, hen, pigeon, starling, and a final unknown smaller bird served to the Sayyid Abu al-‘Ala of Cueta.
Some of the more recent recipes—developed when engastration was at the peak of its recent historical, theoretical popularity in 18th century England—are still in play today. Possibly the most popular of these was the Yorkshire Christmas Pie of 1774: a turkey, goose, guinea fowl, partridge, and pigeon cooked together in a coffin-shaped piecrust. Food historians and aspirational chefs drag out this recipe every couple of years for British television specials and cooking demonstrations. But the True Love Roast, a 12-bird concoction of turkey, goose, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon squab, Aylesbury duck, Barbary duck, poussin, guinea fowl, mallard, and quail—one bird for each day of Christmas—with eight types of stuffing is still common enough as well. In fact, for $1,200 England’s Heal Farm Fine Food will prepare the bird and ship it to you. That’s not such a bad price either, for 55 pounds of solid meat, which is enough to serve 125 people with a cook time of only ten hours.
Richard Fitch, a Tudor food historian who recreates historical dishes for spectators at the Royal Kitchens of Henry VIII’s beloved Hampton Court Palace in London, is one of the proud few who has worked on resurrecting engastration and chimera recipes from old tomes. More often than not he’s working on something a little less extreme in the service of recreating foods that will be interesting, accessible, and somehow relevant to a mass audience. His next project will be "pudding of a nox," a type of medieval blood pudding, which he’s trying out spefically because a few members of his team have never tried it before. “Hopefully,” he told me,” this will mean that their learning process will act as a lens through which the visitors can look at the past. And for those members of the public who themselves have never made a blood pudding—most I would guess—they will act as a form of proxy. Everymen if you will. To show that if these guys can do it anybody could.”
Engastrations don’t fit that mold, but Fitch has some experience with Yorkshire Christmas Pie and a few chimeras. “Always pig/fowl combinations,” he says, like the cockentrice, the hind legs of a capon melded to the fore of a swine. And from that experience he knows a little about just why the Tudors and others might have gone through all the trouble of creating these massive monstrosities without the benefits of a modern kitchen.
As far as Fitch sees it, engastrations and chimeras were probably never all that popular. “I am unaware of any evidence that [engastration] was ever really done at all,” he says. At the very least it probably wasn’t commonly made, but was more popularized by the audacity of the idea and a certain degree of plagiarism. The obsession with the dish does suggest that something about the aspiration character of it, the alchemical act of combining animals held some of the appeal. And that does seem to be the case with chimeras, for which there’s a bit more evidence. Henry VIII notably served a cockentrice (and a dolphin) to the King of France as part of a massive feast meant to impress him with the wealth and capability of the English court. Fitch sees it not just as an attempt to do something weird, but to present notables with mythical hybrid creatures everyone knew in an abstract sense to be real and living off somewhere distant. Magicing one together would have been quite the feat of kitchen wizardry.
That spirit of aspirational cooking and alchemical creation is alive and well today in arts like molecular gastronomy. That—and John Madden’s incessant turducken hucking—is probably why engastration is more alive and well today than ever. We can turn a shrimp into a foam, so why shouldn't we ram a dozen birds together or make a chicken ride a pig wearing medieval armor (a real creation: the helmeted cock)? “It’s fiddly to do and demonstrates the skills of the cook,” says Fitch, “but has possibly transformed more into an aspirational or fashionable dish today, one that can be bought ready-to-cook from frozen. A status symbol in food, if you like.”
Engastrations have always seemed a little gaudy. De la Reyniere’s descriptions of the rôti, like, “enclosed in a young woodcock, as tender and plump as Mademoiselle Volnais and quite as well kept,” or “then enclose your callie (quail), which you should cover with a vine-leaf, as a coat-of-arms to show its nobility, in the body of a vanneau (lapwing),” reek of poetics and pomp. With all his slithering, sexually charged references to famous contemporary actresses’s figures, the recipe was probably far more fun to cook than it was to eat.
But there’s a case to be made for the practicality of engastrations, too. In Greenland, a dish called kiviak, made by killing 400 auks and jamming them feathers and all into a seal carcass, then letting it ferment under a rock from three months to one and a half years before eating the birds whole, evolved out of necessity into a matter of taste and convenience. And as for the rôti, de la Reyniere speaks with great longing for the mingling of “the quintessence of the plain, the forest, the marsh, and the barnyard.” It’s a tempting description of a complex and bold flavor, much like the transfer of juices in a turducken that helps the cardboard of a turkey turn into something palatable and novel.
At the end of the day, however, it’s the magical Frankenstein’s monster aspect of engastration and chimeras that draw people in. “From personal experience,” says Finch, “certain people, for some reason, find it offensive and disrespectful to the animals. And whilst I don’t agree, I can see why they would see it that way.” Forcing things together violently and deliciously. Consuming our unholy creations. There’s probably something deeply disturbing and psychological to say about that. But for most of us, the more innocent act of creating something utterly new in the kitchen is the real catch. It’s brutal, gaudy, and complex, but it’s one little corner of medieval magic we’ve managed to hold onto until today.