Perhaps the Strangest Photo You'll Ever See and How It's Related to Turduckens

This fantastical creature highlights the continuities that extend over centuries of food technology and culture.
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OK. I know I should just show you the picture because I promised it right there in the headline, but we should cover a few bases first. 

Number one, vegetarians—or those easily grossed out—should not scroll down. You've been warned.

Two, in our times, food is often made into spectacle. Think: Iron Chef, hot dog eating contests, the world's largest paella, penis pastamolecular gastronomyJiro Dreams of Sushi, futurist dinner parties, turkey testicle festivals, sundry foods fried at fairs, gingerbread houses, and yes, the turducken, a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey

Food is sustenance and nutrition, but it is also art and entertainment and provocation and worship (see: bacon, Thanksgiving). 

So, if the people and activities and foods of the past seem impossibly strange to you... Look around. We're the ones who create portraits of the actor Kevin Bacon made of bacon. Imagine what your great grandkids will think of that as they eat their drone-farmed GM organic carrots on the formerly arctic plain. 

In any case, the good people of early modern Europe, roughly the period from 1500-1800, had their own peccadiloes. And one of those was sewing together chimerical animals and then eating them. Which brings us to this photograph:

A pig's upper body sewn onto a turkey bottom (Richard Fitch)

This is a real image shared with me by Richard Fitch, the project coordinator for the Historic Kitchens at Hampton Palace, which once served meals to the court of the notoriously gluttonous Henry VIII

Fitch calls himself an experimental historian. He makes the foods described in the cookbooks of yore; his site is called Cooking the Books

The specimen above is called a cockentrice (or cockentryce). It is, quite literally, a pig's upper body sewn onto a turkey bottom. The recipe for it dates from the 15th-century, although it was known to be made in later years. Here's how one source describes what to do (a capon, FYI, is just a big chicken):

Cockentrice - take a capon, scald it, drain it clean, then cut it in half at the waist; take a pig, scald it, drain it as the capon, and also cut it in half at the at the waist; take needle and thread and sew the front part of the capon to the back part of the pig; and the front part of the pig to the back part of the capon, and then stuff it as you would stuff a pig; put it on a spit, and roast it: and when it is done, gild it on the outside with egg yolks, ginger, saffron, and parsley juice; and then serve it forth for a royal meat.

Fitch, true to the recipe, also created the poultry head-pig behind combination, too. Here it is roasting on a spit:

The other halves (Richard Fitch). 

There is a variation on this dish called the Helmeted Cock in which the bird is made to ride the pig in military regalia. 

These dishes are not even the most technically complex dish that was served to the royals of the era. During long meals, certain dishes called subtleties (or entremets) were often presented. The dishes themselves were supposed to be entertaining, and they sometimes included actual entertainment. 

One dish, Rôti Sans Pareil, must be considered the direct ancestor of the modern turducken, though it bears the sort of relationship that Methuselah would have with modern centenarians.

Because the "Roast Without Equal" was formed by stuffing 17 birds inside each other like Russian dolls! Seventeen engastrated birds! In order, they were: 

  • Warbler
  • Bunting
  • Lark
  • Thrush
  • Quail
  • Lapwing
  • Plover
  • Partridge
  • Woodcock
  • Teal
  • Guinea Fowl
  • Duck
  • Chicken
  • Pheasant
  • Goose
  • Turkey
  • Giant Bustard

(Note that our modern variants swap the duck and chicken positions.)

Now, it is fair to ask why such dishes would be made.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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