Today, turkey and stuffing are central fare on the holiday table. But turkeys weren’t even known in England until the 1520s, when they were introduced by explorers returning from the Americas. Turkey was immediately popular in England; within a hundred years, turkeys had become a common Christmas food.
The story with stuffing is less clear. The word “stuffing” first appears in English in Thomas Elyot’s 1538 dictionary, but dishes of stuffed fowl appear across 14th–16th-century European and Mediterranean cookbooks. Some recipes called for hens stuffed with boiled eggs and herbs, others with a mixture of almond and breadcrumbs, still others for spiced ground meat mixed with beaten egg.
The stuffing mixture was not always put into the cavity as it is today: recipes often called for adding stuffing under the skin of the bird’s breast, or wrapping a de-boned bird around the filling before cooking. One early-14th-century French recipe called for the chef to inflate a spring chicken with air—blown through a goose quill—to separate the skin from the meat and then fill the gap with a mixture of pork meat, liver, herbs, and strong spices before tying up the entire thing and roasting it in front of the fire.
Though most stuffings didn’t include bread, the pairing of bread and roast meat was well-established in Euro-Mediterranean cooking, and, by the 15th century, meat was commonly served on sippets (small pieces of toasted bread). Over time, the bread migrated from outside the roast bird to the inside, replacing meat or boiled eggs to become the central ingredient in savoury stuffing as we know it today. Like its medieval predecessors, the bread stuffing was still heavily seasoned with aromatic spices and herbs, adding a burst of flavor to the boiled or roasted fowl, but was now cheaper and easier to prepare.
This holiday season, we invite you to stuff your turkey with a stuffing recipe we found in an early modern cookbook from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. This anonymous manuscript cookbook actually has two turkey and two stuffing recipes: one of the turkey and stuffing recipes is made with oysters, and one without. Oysters and turkey might sound like a bizarre mix today, but these recipes probably most closely reflect the foods available at the original Thanksgiving meals, which likely contained both shellfish and wild turkey—two of the most commonly consumed foods in the Americas. Here, we’ve opted for the oyster-less recipe, which is the kind that has been adopted into modern kitchens.
Modernized Recipe: Stuffing
- 4 cups stale bread, cubed
- 2 eggs
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 1/4 tsp marjoram (dried or fresh)
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 2 tsp long pepper or black pepper*
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp coarsely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup of beef tallow or vegetable shortening**
* Long pepper was used frequently in early modern cooking. While today it can still be found and used, it also can be substituted for the more common black pepper.
** The original recipe calls for beef suet, which is similar to beef tallow. Beef tallow can be found at high-end grocery stores. For a vegetarian-friendly version, substitute vegetable shortening.
Into a large bowl, crack and lightly whisk the eggs. Add cream, lemon zest, parsley, and spices. Gently stir together. Warm the tallow until liquid, while ensuring that the tallow is still room temperature. (Too hot tallow will cook the eggs.) Pour the room-temperature, liquid tallow into the egg and cream mixture and stir. When mixed, pour the liquid over the bread cubes and gently toss.
This stuffing can be baked inside of a bird or in a pan. To cook in a pan, grease a large casserole dish before pouring the stuffing into it. Cover with tinfoil and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes. Bake for an additional 10–15 minutes with the tinfoil removed.