WSJ Historically Speaking: Much Ado About Stuffing: A History

For a festival that celebrates amity, thankfulness and American values, Thanksgiving generates a lot of arguments, perhaps none more contentious than the issue of stuffing.

The disputes begin with the name, because some people refer to stuffing as “dressing.” Also, some insist that stuffing is only stuffing if it’s from inside the bird, while others can only abide cooking it separately and serving it as a side dish.

Since the stovetop is an 18th-century invention, it would be logical to assume that bread stuffing is only authentic when cooked inside a roasted bird. Logical, but wrong. The chicken reached Mesopotamia from the Indian subcontinent around 2000 B.C. A 3,700-year-old clay tablet dug up in Larsa (now part of Iraq) contained several poultry recipes. One was for a roasted bird accompanied by a side dish of specially flavored soft bread. This may have been the earliest precursor to Thanksgiving stuffing.

The Romans, though, were avid in-the-bird stuffers. Marcus Gavius Apicius, who flourished in the first century A.D., gave over-the-top banquets that eventually led to his bankruptcy and suicide. According to a later manuscript, “Apicius, De Re Coquinaria” (“On the Subject of Cooking”), Apicius would put stuffing into anything, including dormice. He even stuffed a suckling pig with small birds, laying the groundwork for turducken, that 20th-century concoction of chicken stuffed into duck stuffed into turkey popularized by Paul Prudhomme.

Apicius laid down a challenge that later stuffing-lovers couldn’t resist. Memorably, England’s King Henry VIII (1491-1547) created a monstrous hybrid when he served the French king a “cockentrice”—the head of a capon and the body of a pig filled with stuffing and then sewn together. In France, the gourmand Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière published a recipe in 1807 for “rôti sans pareil” (roast without equal)—a bustard stuffed with 16 types of birds, each surrounded with bread stuffing. In 2010, the Guinness Book of World Records listed a Bedouin wedding dish of roasted camel stuffed with sheep, chickens, fish and eggs as the “largest item on any menu in the world.”

By contrast, American stuffing has been proudly regional rather than ostentatious. Some New Englanders swear by their oysters. Southerners often use a cornbread stuffing that originated from a dish called kush, cooked by slaves brought from North and West Africa. In places like the Northwest, holiday stuffing can include Native American wild rice.

Some of that egotism melted away in the 20th century, when one brave woman swept aside some of the competitiveness surrounding stuffing, returning the dish to its simpler origins as a side accompaniment. Ruth Siems, a General Foods home economist, played a leading role in introducing stovetop stuffing in a box in 1972—slashing cooking time and possibly preventing cases of food poisoning from undercooked poultry. For stuffing lovers who don’t want to stuff, don’t worry—history is on your side.

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