Food Fraud: Unmasking the Cockatrice

September 4, 2013


Fancy eating a cockatrice?

The cockatrice was an imaginary creature dreamed up in medieval fantasies. In the stories of the age, the cockatrice was a legendary creature, half serpent, half rooster, similar to a winged basilisk. The cockatrice was said to have the power to kill with a glance. Edible cockatrice were a little different.

Medieval cooks enjoyed a challenge. They liked to create unusual items for banquets and often created a cockatrice as the central part of a feast.

Historical records tell us that roasted cockatrice formed part of a feast held by John Stafford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1425. Creating such a meal required more than a bit of ingenuity, since the main course didn’t actually exist.

Recipes from the medieval era show how cooks created cockatrice meals. They’d start with a capon – basically a rooster – that they cut in half at the waist. Next they’d cut a pig in half. The back part of the pig would be sewn to the front of the capon, and the front of the pig would be attached to the back part of the capon.

The resulting patched-together animal – a cockatrice – was stuffed with bread, eggs, suet, and spices. The animal was boiled, then roasted on a spit.

During cooking, the meat was glazed with a mixture of egg yolks, ginger, and precious saffron. And when it was done, it was gilded with edible gold! The gilded cockatrice was placed on a large platter and carried ceremoniously into the dining hall, where it was carved and served at the high table.

The appearance of a cockatrice at a feast showed just how important and prosperous the person giving the feast was. It was a status symbol. Spices like saffron and ginger were extremely expensive because they were imported via the pilgrim routes from the Holy Land.

Cockatrice were showy and time-consuming to make, but they were enjoyed by everyone at the feast.

You may think this medieval tradition is quaint and nothing like it could happen today…but certain modern feasts revolve around a similarly mythical beast: the turducken. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

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