Ramen burger? Cookizza? Today’s food mash-ups seem outrageous, but ours is also a food culture that thinks pickle juice on a sandwich deserves a stand-up routine and fries in a burrito merits a blogosphere debate. No, a long view of history shows we’re some of the pickiest eaters. Foie gras and Nutella? Comanche Indians ate their buffalo liver raw, squirted with fresh bile. If historically tame by comparison, our chefly acrobatics at least show we haven’t lost our sense of flair. Food is more than sustenance. Eating can be spectacle. History’s best combos have been made at the meat counter, and so we offer here some inspiration: a brief guide to the carnivorous splendor of meat-stuffed meats.
The best-known, if most misunderstood, of the “weird animal parts inside other weird animal parts” genre is, of course, haggis. The pudding king, as famed Scottish poet Robbie Burns called it, is actually pretty mild, considering some of its competition. Basically an oatmeal and offal sausage: a sheep stomach stuffed with oats, onions, butter (suet, or kidney fat, traditionally), and — the squeamish part — a sheep’s “pluck.” That’s a hacked-up melange of lungs, liver and heart. Liver and heart on their own aren’t too scary, but it’s the lungs, or lights, that give most pause.
Sheep lung has been banned in the U.S. since 1971, so domestic-made haggises make do without, and indeed, most any ground offal works. This was, after all, a dish of rustic necessity — a leftover casserole, just substitute a stomach for Tupperware. Naturally, derivations abound. In A Taste of Scotland, a tsk-tsk-ing Theodora Fitz-Gibbon advises that “the finest haggis of all is made with deer’s liver instead of sheep’s liver.” The “warm-reekin, rich” scent of haggis is nutty and warm, like fresh-baked bread and simmering beef stock. And the taste? Haggis has the flavor of liver with the texture of quinoa. The oats give it a caviar pop; the pluck — or, you know, whatever brand of offal appears in its place — a pleasant gaminess.
But the humble haggis doesn’t look like much, even pierced with the ceremonial dagger “trenching your gushing entrails bright,” as Burns famously put it — just a football-sized sausage. For meaty mash-ups worth a centerpiece, we turn to, first, turducken. The modern turducken first emerged in the late 1990s from where else but that last refuge of American animalistic weirdness (exhibit A: Swamp People): the bayou swamp. That’s according to Calvin Trillin, who tracked this monster back to Herbert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice, Louisiana, “Home of Deboned Chicken.” Deboning, of course, is just the start. It’s then stuffed back to size and packed into a duck, then finally a turkey. But why stop there? Cajun Specialty Meats in Pensacola, Florida, sells a Fowl de Cochon for $285. That’s a turducken stuffed into a pig. The monstrosity yields about 150 servings or so. And it probably goes without saying, but the company “must have advance notice for this item.”
But turducken-type mash-ups were quite common to those gluttons of the past, the Victorian Brits. Cooked over open fires, most meat was baked into pies; the browning crust would keep the insides moist. Eighteenth-century recipes include Hannah Glasse’s 1747 Christmas pie: pigeon, partridge, chicken, and goose, one inside the other, all tucked into a dough-encrusted turkey. Evelyn Waugh described the chaos of one particularly jumbled pie in Vile Bodies: “quite black inside and full of beaks and shot and inexplicable vertebrae.” (Inexplicable, but at least identifiable. Who knows what horrors lurk within your chicken nugget?)
A few old-school British butchers keep the tradition going. Take Heal Farm’s True Love Roast: turkey, goose, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon squab, Aylesbury duck, Barbary duck, poussin, guinea fowl, mallard, and quail (12 birds, one for each day of Christmas). Or Pandora’s Cushion — a boned goose stuffed with a boned chicken, which was stuffed with a boned pheasant, itself stuffed with a boned quail. Coppins Butchers in London makes one from an old family recipe. The £100 bird will feed a dozen.
Extravagant? Please. Picture this: Michael Mina’s Lambpigcow, a Wagyu beef burrito stuffed with 24 quail, 12 chickens, eight ducks, six turkeys, two lambs, a pig, and chestnut-turkey sausage, served on Thanksgiving at his rotisserie in San Francisco’s new Levi’s Stadium.
Or Trojan boar, served in the Satyricon: a thousand-pound hog, baskets of dates hanging from its tusks, stuffed with live birds:
Drawing his hunting-knife, he plunged it fiercely into the boar’s side, and some thrushes flew out of the gash. Fowlers, ready with their rods, caught them in a moment, as they fluttered around the room and Trimalchio ordered one to each guest, remarking, ‘Notice what fine acorns this forest-bred boar fed on,’ and as he spoke, some slaves removed the little baskets from the tusks and divided the Syrian and Theban dates equally among the diners.
Granted, the Satyricon is a work of fiction, but the Romans were known to have eaten similarly elaborate dishes.
The biggest stuffed beast, according to Guinness World Records, is Bedouin Stuffed Camel: chickens stuffed with rice and hard-boiled eggs, sewn inside a lamb, sewn inside a camel, then broiled over a charcoal pit and covered with nuts and dates. It might be a myth. The only recipe I can find, from a 1980s book on international cuisine, seems to be a joke. But even so, it’s far from the most bizarre meat creation.
That honor goes to the Cockentrice, a medieval concoction of pig and rooster. Literally. From “cock” (a capon) and “grys” (a pig), the horrific dish involved sewing the top half of a bird onto the legs of a hog, and cooking the thing on a spit. Described thusly in Le Viandier, the medieval French cookbook of Guillaume Tirel:
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.
Royal indeed. Some English recipes called for covering it in gold and silver foil as well.
Whither such amusement these days? I asked chef Kevin Ouzts, who named his recently opened Atlanta restaurant after the thing, if he’d ever made one. Sure, he said. With that name, he has to from time to time. But it’s a tall order: The rooster has to be perfectly aged so as not to dry out as the pig cooks. And then, he says, you need a crowd to serve it to. Hard to come by, unsurprisingly. Ouzts does serve other interesting meats within meats, including an heirloom turkey stuffed with lamb loin, and a steamed pig’s head filled with andouille sausage and lamb belly.
Otherwise, Ouzts primarily traffics in the modern equivalent of such medieval franken-food: molecular gastronomy. Nerdy? Sure. But then again, if Satyricon‘s Trimalchio had a thermal-circulating water bath and a nitrogen canister, wouldn’t he serve hydrocolloid-encrusted oxtail with sunchoke foam? The tools may change, but the spectacle remains.
Read more about butchery and charcuterie on Food Republic: