Stuffing and Variations

two bags of to-be-delicious sourdough stuffing
You can never have too much…. photo by kajmeister.

I was pondering when the first cook might have stuffed a turkey way back when… because there’s plenty of time to ponder these days, what with all of us being indoors and on our own so much of the time. Let’s not limit it to turkey, though. Who might have been the first person to stuff an animal, which is to say to take the innards out of an animal and replace it with other stuff, then cook it?

The noun form of “stuff” probably emerged from the verb “stuff” which came from the French otoffer meaning to cram things in other things. (See also “stop” and “plug” and suddenly I’m thinking about Drano.) Anyway, the noun “stuff” really does emerge from the verb, such that when we refer to “our stuff” or “bunch o’things” we mean bunch that could be crammed somewhere. When we are such “stuff” as dreams are made on, as Shakespeare’s Prospero said, he meant a motley bunch of craziness out of which we will go, after death, into some truer reality. This year certainly seems the “stuff” that dreams are made of, so I’m ready to decide we should cram 2020 somewhere else. I have suggestions about where, but you probably don’t want to hear them.

This raises a whole host of ancillary questions. What is the (brief) history of cooking stuffed things, i.e. what was stuffing about during the heyday of say Henry VIII? Compared with the 1950s, for example? Did the pilgrims stuff their turkey? (my guess is no, let’s find out). Why is it for some oddball reason called “dressing” in other places? And what are the weirdest things people want to do with their stuffing, (G-rated only, please)?

a toast to the turkey, family photo from 1965
Holiday dinner 1965, photo by kajmeister’s Dad.

My mother knew how to cook one kick-ass turkey. She wasn’t the world’s greatest cook, but her stuffing and gravy were the best. Apparently, we also ate peas and carrots and Very White Mashed Potatoes on a very white tablecloth with white fine German china underneath. It was the Midwest in the 1960s, what can I say? That’s my uncle Delano on the right, named for FDR, before my uncle changed his name to Lamont then Lavont then Levitar, which was the eye in the pyramid. All that is another story. It was still good turkey.

The History of Sticking Fire Under Dead Things to See What Happens

One of the reasons fire was such a great invention is that aside from scaring away predators and allowing humans to survive in colder climates, it also led to cooked food. Grains, in particular, are often toxic unless cooked, so fire allowed humans to eat crops that they could grow rather than running after their food. Also, cooked meat has more nutrition and can be chewed and digested more rapidly; chewing and swallowing raw meat takes all day. Once the ability to make fire on demand was discovered, it wasn’t hard to rig some sort of spit to turn meat to be evenly cooked. However, stuffing an animals would pose the technical problem of how to tie it shut.

The Sumerians and Egyptians didn’t have turkeys (western hemisphere) or chicken (China) but they did cook duck and goose, and they did make rice-based stuffing for vegetables. Early civilizations would often cook things in animal stomachs–hey, if you don’t have enough pottery, you use what you have! So, while we don’t have recipes for rice-stuffed roasted goose, it’s not impossible to imagine.

Turkeys evolved in the Americas, and the Aztecs definitely had them, although they only roasted them on rare ceremonial occasions. They had a turkey god called Chalchiuhtotolin, but they apparently appreciated the turkeys more for their feather production and as a pesticide vs. as dinner. The conquistadors wondered why these natives had half-plucked dinners running around everywhere and the Aztecs wondered why these foreigners would want to eat a beast that was still producing ceremonial garb and keeping the insects off the crops.

Aztec turkey god
Cited in Turkeys Part I

The Evolution of Cooking Things with Other Things in Them

One of the earliest dudes to create a cookbook was a Roman named Marcus Gavius Apicius. (The Internet says he was the cook, although Wikipedia said he was the diner. Whichever he was, his name is on the cookbook.) Apicius was fond of fish, sauces, and exotic ingredients like flamingo tongue and camel toe. He stuffed all sorts of things, with dozens of recipes for sausages as well as stuffed chicken, hare, and dormouse. Those of us who know our Alice in Wonderland know that the dormouse is very fond of treacle.

turkey menu from the movie "Christmas in Connecticut"
Barbara Stanwyck’s menu from Christmas in Connecticut. Photo from Pinterest.

One type of stuffing very popular in the Tudor era that recently surfaced was stuffing meat inside other meat, a process called engastration. The Turducken is a recent version of this, a chicken inside the duck inside the turkey. A Tudor Christmas pie involved putting a giant crust over a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with partridge, stuffed with pigeon, kind of like a Russian doll version of food. The Tudor era led to stuffing many things into other things, which we might think is silly, except that modern fancy foodies eat stuffed chicken wings and stuffed quail eggs, and all manner of stuffed foods that require an eye dropper.

Even for a regular bird-stuffing project, consider the alternatives, as described in a recent Thanksgiving recipe:

Yield: 20 cups, enough for one large turkey, 2 to 3 geese or 8 chickens.

Recipe from the New York Times

That tells you all you need to know. Why make eight chickens, when all you need is one decent-sized turkey? eight chickens stuffed is … what’s the point of stuffing them? that would be like a half-cup of stuffing each. Also, who has geese? When was the last time you saw a goose at the supermarket? That’s right. Never. This is why it’s always “fun” to read recipes written by wealthy people with nothing better to do with their time than troll around open-air markets, looking for two or three geese to stuff.

On the other hand, if you’re a chicken farmer as my grandfather was, and you have your nine alphabetically-named adult children to dinner, then maybe all you have is chicken legs. But I still think a turkey or two might have been just as efficient.

When you have eight adult children & you’re a chicken farmer. Minnesota @1960, photo via kajmeister.

Engastration By Any Other Name

Stuffing has had other names throughout the years and cultures. It was also called “forcemeat,” from the French “farcir” which also means…you guessed it… to “stuff.” Forcemeat, used by both ancient and Enlightenment cooks (circa 1658) was made by grinding up meat, usually pork, and fat with some other meat. Then cubed, seasoned, cured, “rested,” and placed–i.e. crammed–into the other vessel, which might be a meat. Imagine grinding up pork meat with quail meat, and shoving it all into a deer. And you thought hot dogs were mystery meat!

The Victorians, who wanted to put fig leaves on Renaissance paintings and covered their table legs so that they wouldn’t be too erotic, were the ones that invented the alternate word “dressing” as a substitute for “stuffing.” Dressing is the more customary term in the southern U.S., so I might speculate it arose from that genteel background? I understand also that in the south, dressing is customarily made with cornbread. Out here in San Francisco, stuffing made with sourdough bread rocks the house. All kinds of bread sound good to me. Of course, not every variation will sound as good.

Weird Stuffing: No Accounting for Taste

My mom used to say “Yes, No or in a Barrel…” so here would be an evaluation of what might be unusual but still acceptable, all things I’ve read in recent recipes to “shake up your stuffing”…

YES: Rice. Mushrooms. Sausage. Spam sounds weird, but if it’s rendered down hard, it would be just like bacon.

NO. Oysters. Ground beef, Parmesan. Eggs? inside a turkey? what the heck, that’s just making meatloaf? Corn chips? wrong consistency. Stuffing really shouldn’t be crunchy. Cheese: no, what is with Americans wanting to put cheese on everything? If you just want melted cheese, make a sandwich. Otherwise, leave it out of your turkey. Cheese & Gravy? oi. Uncooked Spam (or uncooked bacon). Pepperoni (oh no). Popcorn would seem to defeat the purpose. If you need corn flavor, just use cornbread or… corn. Blue cheese and walnuts? Honestly, I think recipe-writers sometimes just try to throw oddball ingredients together to see if we’re paying attention. White Castle Sliders and Twinkies? … now, you’re just drunk.

IN A BARREL (i.e. maybe). Figs. Apples/raisins. I’d try it. Crackers instead of bread. Could work, was apparently Extremely popular in the 1950s. Hard cider (vs. turkey stock? maybe) or Whiskey. I see where this is going. Plantains? not my cup of tea, but I bet if someone knowledgeable made them, I’d like them. Smoked salmon/bagels could be interesting baked on its own, but inside the turkey?

The Stuffing That Dreams Are Made On

Here are the basic keys to stuffing:

BREAD: Needs to be stale or toasted a little. You don’t want goo, and if you use fresh bread, the stuffing will end up the like mashed potatoes. It needs to absorb the gravy, not be the consistency of the gravy.

VEGETABLES: Celery and onion are the savories which pair well with turkey and with almost any other good combination of all the unique ingredients above. If you saute the veggies first in a little butter and chicken stock, then they will be the right kind of tender, and the house starts to smell good, even before the turkey is cooking.

LIQUID/FAT: The bread, vegetables, and Other (rice, figs, whiskey, whatever) need to cling together a little, so that when you cram it in the cavity, it doesn’t immediately fall out. A little melted butter or turkey stock will do it. Or whiskey, I suppose. A classic process of making the stock is to boil the turkey innards, the neck and giblets with some onion and celery ahead of time, then strain it. That gives you plenty for the stuffing and gravy.

So, Praise to Stuffing! All Hail to Thee, Fine Stuffing! Practically anything else can be substituted in your Thanksgiving/ Friendsgiving/ harvest meal–goose or soy for turkey, yams for potatoes, brussel sprouts for green beans, pecan for pumpkin for apple pie–but you Must. Have. Stuffing.

Hooray for Stuffing! photo by kajmeister circa 2003