10/21/2013 09:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Did Cervantes Invent the Turducken?

First Appeared on Food Riot, by Colleen Shea

I am currently about 3/4 of the way through literary über-classic (read: long; also, old) Don Quixote. Yes, really, I am. No, I am not reading it under compulsion. Don Quixote is very long and very silly; it is excessive, bombastic, wordy; it is incredibly fun, but can only be read in small portions. It's a very rich and extremely filling dish.

Written between 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered to be one of the first great European novels. And it is really great: Señor Quixote attacks some windmills thinking they're giants; he stabs a bunch of wineskins to death because he believes they're monsters; there's a soothsaying monkey. These things alone make it one of the best goddamn books in the world, but a lot of people get beaten up and write poetry, too. It's funny as hell.

Miguel de Cervantes (1547ish-1616) is thus rightly credited with being generally awesome. To add to this already overabundant awesomeness: Cervantes was captured by pirates, enslaved, and lived to tell the tale; he died one day before Shakespeare did. He has a lot going for him, but he may also deserve credit for something else: I think he may have invented the turducken.

The internet, which is always right, tells me that in the U.S., the first record of stuffing one dead animal into another for eating purposes (I'm not sure I want to think about what other purposes there might be for so doing) is around 1807. (Not 1999, as I would have thought.)

The Oxford English Dictionary's first reference to it comes from an 1814 book called The School for Good Living; it tells us only that there is a word for the act of creating turduckens and the like -- engastration. (I like that there's a word for literally everything. I don't eat turs or ducs or kens as I'm vegan, but even I could wish that engastration didn't rhyme with castration. Ugly, ugly words.) Engastration, according to this olde booke, is the making of "stuffed pies, one bird within another... The passion for engastration seems to have had its admirers in all ages." Other internet sources speculate that this culinary practice has been popular since the Middle Ages, and insist that it isn't limited to birds -- that any set of animals will do. It's really about making a deep-fried or baked set of bloody Russian nesting dolls.

So, here it is, the quotation you've all been waiting for, proof (if we're going with truthiness rather than absolute truth here) that Cervantes was an inventor not only of hilarious and ground-breaking prose fiction, but also of kitchen dreams that become heart attacks:

"The first thing that appeared before Sancho's eyes was an entire steer on a roasting spit made of an entire elm; and in the fire where it was to roast, a fair-size mountain of wood was burning, and six pots that were placed around the fire were not made in the common mold of other pots, because these were six huge cauldrons, each one large enough to hold the contents of an entire slaughterhouse: they contained and enclosed entire sheep, which sank out of view as if they were doves; the hares without their skins and the chickens without their feathers that were hanging from the trees, waiting to be buried in the cauldrons, were without number; the various kinds of fowl and game hanging from the trees to cool in the breeze were infinite... Twelve small, tender suckling pigs were sewn into the expanded belly of the steer to give it flavor and make it tender."

So. Many. Superlatives. You thought I was going to say dead animals; well, that too. But Cervantes may as well have invented superlatives on top of everything else. (On top of a pie the size of 10 houses built one on top of the other!!) The whole book is like this, regardless of topic -- all rhetorical jazz hands.

I would like to congratulate Cervantes on being so creative and forward-thinking with this early turducken prototype -- he was like the Nostradamus of gastronomic excess (Gastronomus!!). I would like to congratulate myself, as well, for reading this scene and not being either too revolted or food-drunk to notice the historical implications. I plan to celebrate my discovery by not eating a turducken or anything like it.

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