The turducken offers no excuses. A deboned, stuffed chicken enfolded in a deboned, stuffed duck sewn into a deboned, stuffed turkey, roasted together for a quarter of a day and wetted with duck fat gravy -- what could it possibly say in its own defense? Louisianians deep-fry turkeys and bacon, and they panee anything that once walked and then strangle it with butter. But the turducken is, unequivocally, the most outrageous dish to migrate beyond the state's borders and thrive there. Even Chef Paul Prudhomme, the man widely acknowledged for inventing the uber-seasoned, tri-stuffed fowl, says the cult of turducken is unstoppable: "It's going crazy around the country. It's just mind-boggling. It just don't make sense."
It wouldn't make sense, that is, if a turducken didn't have the backbone to support such acclaim. Or, wait, it doesn't have a backbone. Nevertheless, when prepared properly -- with fresh birds, moist stuffings, a steady sewing hand and an open mind -- a boneless turducken can be perfectly enchanting. That's saying a lot for a poultry chimera.
Like Prudhomme, Leah and Glenn Mistich are renowned for their turduckens. Between their two Gourmet Butcher Block stores, located in Gretna and Metairie, they sell roughly 6,000 turduckens each holiday season. Their butchers stage deboning races along the Gretna kitchen's several-hundred square feet of stainless steel tabletops. The record for a chicken is 43 seconds.
The Mistiches model their turduckens after the ones that Leah's brothers, Sammy and Widley Hebert, have sold at Hebert's Specialty Meats in Maurice since the day in 1984 when a customer carried in a freshly shot turkey and duck. According to Sammy, the man asked for his birds deboned and stuffed. Then he asked for the duck to be placed inside the turkey, and for one of Hebert's deboned chickens to be folded inside the duck.
The brothers say they hadn't heard of Prudhomme's turducken at the time. In fact, Sammy believes Prudhomme's turducken is a spin-off of theirs. "He's trying to claim he's the first one to make [a turducken], but he doesn't have any proof, just like we don't have any proof we made it first," Sammy says. "He gives us a lot of credit, though. I think he knows who was the first one."
Noted Louisiana food writer Marcelle Bienvenu's first memory of the triple-bird phenomenon disputes the Hebert claim. She witnessed her first turducken in the 1970s, when Prudhomme worked at Commander's Palace. "He found a historical note on it and introduced it to the modern world," she remembers.
While the practice of roasting animals within other animals is ancient, the word "turducken" is not. Prudhomme explains, "If my memory serves me correctly, Frank Davis participated in naming it 'turducken,'" during a live radio show broadcast from K-Paul's. Prudhomme lays claim to the dish's invention in his own account: "I don't think there was an exact moment of invention. It was more of an evolution. ... The evolution took 10, maybe 12 years starting in the 1960s."
Not everyone is ecstatic about the turducken's creation. For a few days of cold-calling, the only Louisianian I could find who eats them by choice was Bienvenu. Mary and Greg Sonnier of Gabrielle restaurant worked at K-Paul's in the 1980s, during the turducken's debut there. Mary shudders audibly when she hears the T-word: "The turducken sounds better than it actually is. Things kind of get lost."
Poppy Tooker, outspoken leader of the local Slow Food Convivium, agrees: "As far as I'm concerned, a turducken is a medieval pile of poo. I've never seen one that, when carved, didn't look like that and didn't taste like a big pile of mishmash mush. Anybody who knows anything about food would think the same."
She has a point. Tearing into a cross-section of K-Paul's turducken on Thanksgiving Eve, the only night of the year when Prudhomme's restaurant serves it, my brother-in-law pointed to the all-brown mass and exclaimed, "I like that brown dressing best!" The moist brown dressing sandwiched between moist brown meat sandwiched between moist brown dressing, etc., effect of a turducken inspired another friend to call it a "poultry malt." Critics rarely fail to point out what the first four letters of "turducken" spell.
It's not in my blood to be a snob about holiday meals. Oh, I've tried; I orchestrated a soup course one Thanksgiving, and I've stuffed beef tenderloin with goat cheese in place of the Christmas bird. But a family's collective preference for holiday tradition is as rigid as time, and mine always reverts to the holiday meal mishmash mush: gravy running over into cranberry sauce running over into mashed potatoes running over into Jello-O salad.
Which may be why, after eating K-Paul's turducken, I was moved to make one from scratch. Just pondering the audacity of the invention engendered an appreciation for it; tasting the one from K-Paul's further piqued my interest. But it struck me that, just like with Russian dolls, a true understanding of turducken may not come in the disassembling but rather in the fitting together.
Of course, Prudhomme agreed. Though they're available in supermarkets from St. Cloud to San Diego, he's never purchased a pre-made turducken. "That would be like an automobile dealer buying a car from another automobile dealer just to see what would happen. I'm not that curious," he says. The chef did, thankfully, grant me permission to have a butcher debone the birds, allowing that a misstep in deboning can mean disaster for the finished product.
To make a turducken at the last minute, you must begin three days in advance. The first challenge is finding a butcher to do the deboning -- a disappearing breed. I had success at Gourmet Butcher Block, Langenstein's and Whole Foods Market.
Some butchers will try to persuade you to stuff duck and chicken breasts into your turkey instead of whole birds, an increasingly popular practice. The innovation allows for mini-turduckens sized for smaller crowds. It also shortens the roasting time, ensuring that the turkey doesn't dry out, a widespread criticism of turduckens in general. But given the stuffings, the juices and the fat rendered from a whole duck, stressing about dried-out turkey is borderline paranoia. Worry about real roadblocks, which will crop up.
Once you've secured the deboned birds -- cut open along one side and resembling poultry wetsuits -- it's time to prepare the stuffings. Though many easier, more refined recipes now exist, I followed Prudhomme's outrageously time-consuming turducken formula for my first attempt. I made herbaceous oyster dressing for the chicken, smoke-edged andouille dressing for the duck and giblet-cornbread dressing for the turkey -- all moistened with homemade poultry stock. The dressings must chill overnight.
Prudhomme published his original turducken recipe in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, now out of print. You can find an early version with good ingredient lists on the Web site www.gumbopages.com. There's an updated, more clearly written version of the recipe on www.chefpaul.com, though this one wants you to buy Prudhomme's line of expensive seasoning mixes (already the whole shebang will set you back around $70, give or take an onion). Either way, the amount of garlic, onion powder and cayenne involved could pass as a flu vaccine.
According to all written, visual and verbal instructions I received, once you've paved the poultry wetsuits with the prepared dressings, pushing it into all the boneless crevices, you place the chicken upon the duck, roll the duck around the chicken and place it on the turkey, then simply sew the turkey seam closed, "zipping it up" with a few stitches of kitchen twine, as a Gourmet Butcher Block butcher gracefully demonstrated.
Easy enough, providing you follow instructions and buy a turkey large enough to swallow your duck in a gulp and your chicken in a sniffle. But if you buy a turkey like my turkey, which at 10.19 lbs. was about 5 lbs. too small, you can expect to melt into a blubbering puddle on the kitchen floor. Trying to assemble my turducken alone was like trying to jam the foot-high Russian doll into the pencil eraser-size one.
If you're lucky -- and only the turducken gods know why I was -- a friend trained in medical suturing will be the one to lift you from your misery and lend two more hands to the project. It took us one upholstery needle, needle-nose pliers, several yards of twine and two patient hours to close the slippery, aviary Frankenstein, but we did it.
The rest is a breeze, given an accurately calibrated oven and meat thermometer. The roasting takes between six and eight hours (mine took six and a half), which is plenty of time for making Prudhomme's early recipe for sweet potato and eggplant gravy with the pan juices. It's candy-sweet and jarringly spicy when tasted from the pot with a spoon, but it mellows into the finished turducken like butter on toast. And slicing the boneless butterball is about as easy as passing a hot knife through a snowball. A cross-section looks like a pressed terrine.
Side dishes are optional. They saute some vegetables at K-Paul's. My guests appreciated a cranberry relish. But really, everybody fixates on the steaming brown mass and its dark, musky, gamy-in-parts, smoke-infused flavor; its perfume of aromatic vegetables; and its saturation of spices. You encounter an oyster here and a ribbon of duck skin there, but trying to identify the individual elements is missing the point. A turducken is a mishmash mush, and it's meant to be eaten like one.
Would I spend three days making another turducken? Yes, maybe, could be, but never more than once a year. Could the formula be improved? At Gourmet Butcher Block they sell fowl de cochon: turduckens sewn into whole pigs. Our turducken feast spawned an idea for a ducturken: duck on the outside would, theoretically, result in a luscious duck cracklin' exterior.
The words of Chef Prudhomme ring clear in the aftermath: "It's a challenge, and people can't resist a challenge."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Michael Irby of Gourmet Butcher Block seasons a procession line's worth of turducken to keep up with the triple-bird phenom's popularity.