Never look a gift turkey in the mouth, they say. 

(As if a slaughtered turkey had a mouth, these days.)

Nine-pound turkey spatchcocked and dry-rubbed by my wife.

This particular gift turkey, at any rate, received from a friend the other day, was spatchcocked by my wife, in my absence, and then rubbed with dry spices.

I first heard the word “spatchcock” from a cook friend of mine a few years ago. What an odd word … for such an odd bird as this (left)!

According to Merriam-Webster, a spatchcock (noun) is “a fowl split and grilled usually immediately after being killed and dressed.”

In our particular recent case, my wife Jen cut out the bird’s backbone, flattened it as if it were a punchdrunk palooka, rubbed it up with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika. We let the bird sit a bit and then smoked it in a 270° electric smoker for about two hours.

And, as our dear friend Martha Stewart, points out about spatchcocking a small bird,

This technique—splitting, then flattening a chicken—yields a perfect roasted chicken in half an hour—that’s 15 minutes faster than a whole roasted bird. It also exposes more skin, which crisps up nicely at higher  temperatures. The basic method is easy; customize it with your favorite ingredients.

But this blog entry is not a recipe, sorry: rather, a meditation on an odd and powerful word. (Though words and references tend to get mixed up like a jambalaya. Perhaps this writing may suggest a recipe or directive, of sorts, for writers.)

The dictionary, or various dictionaries, are at a loss to explain the etymology of the word except to say that an oft-cited source, the dispatching (killing) of a cock, is probably false.

They cite another mysterious culinary word that this one may derive from: “spitchcock,” that is, chopping, dressing, and cooking an eel.

But what sour seas spitchcock comes from, who knows?

As a Washington Post article has it,

You could sit around the office for days and try to guess where the term spatchcock originated but that could get dicey. Or you can turn to Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 1999). :”Spatchcock is a culinary term, met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries and revived toward the end of the 20th century, which is said to be of Irish origin….”

And, no, few if any of us have time or learning enough to sit around for days and guess the origin of spatchcock or spitchcock or even cock o’ the walk. 

Yet what a powerfully propulsive word is “spatchcock.” What a blow it delivers for a savory and muscular Anglo-Saxon. What a world of metaphorical meanings too it might unleash.

Merriam-Webster, again, gives this definition of the metaphorical drift of the word:

2: to introduce by or as if by interpolation or insertion
// task of attempting to spatchcock the new evidence into an existing framework — Times Literary Supplement
// all the random majesty of the place appeared spatchcocked, rectified, and jumbled.” — John Cheever adds what may be a crucial qualifier: “to insert or interpolate, especially in a forced or incongruous manner.”

And a commentator at observes,

… the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.

This metaphorical sense is cited in Joyce’s Ulysses (again, cited in Languagehat): “The only time I’d ever encountered the word was in Joyce’s Ulysses, chapter 9: ‘Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?'” 

But that’s Joyce, you say? Who might, if anyone, have read 18th and 19th century Irish cookeries. And to whom we wish all modern benedictions, blessings, and restings in peace. 

Spatchcock. Space flight. Destiny. The shuddering and interpolated verbal world. May we all while away our time so pleasantly, whirling away in thought, word, and deed, before we rest in peace.

My friend’s dog, Mackenzie, aka Spatchcock (for obvious reasons; photo by Steve Petrini).

P.S. The same cook friend I reference above has an English setter, Mackenzie, who suggests another metaphorical extension of the word spatchcock. See here, Spatchcock! Do behave!



Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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