Thanksgiving is plated comfort, dinner to honor a lore-steeped narrative of the harvest, funneled through a few hundred years of regional cultural variations. The foods are invariably soft, uncomplicated: balls of mush in warm hues — orange, brown, beige, and dull, vegetal green — a crust here, a relish there — nothing to stun or overwhelm. An ambitious menu might boast edgy updates of accepted classics, but themes are very rarely abused or flaunted, merely tweaked: one might endeavor to make sweet potato casserole, for example, re-imagined as a single perfect fritter on each plate, sidling up to tidy blobs of marshmallow-esque creme fraiche, shaded by fronds of fried sage.
So long as the chile-garlic sauce stays in the fridge and no pretentious foams materialize, side dishes may be mussed in a respectful fashion. Turkey, whole, however, is a most traditional yet often maligned centerpiece — flightless, frequently bone-dry, and hard to budge. Every year, food writers fall over themselves trying to convince desperate cooks they’ve found an antidote — brining, larding, frantic temperature adjustments — when they’d better serve suppers by pushing far superior animal proteins — say, glorious hams, sides of wild salmon, or haunches of venison.
Enter the turducken. Despite its cultish presence in the cozy Thanksgiving lexicon, the turducken is aggressively weird, an unnatural, misshapen, stitched-up Frankenstein-like thing — something that perhaps resembled a “sneetch” in life — prior to being butchered and baked. Still, as the steaming mass — chicken, within duck, within turkey — all boned and stuffed — descends on an overloaded banquet table, accompanied by grand quasi-medieval pomp, hearty eaters think nothing of its artificial genus, gathering around to slice through and spill forth the intertwined meaty chunks in varied hues — reveling in the surreal delicious guts of a very strange beast indeed.
For three years, I lived with a few turducken aficionados in a big house at the edge of the Mission District, close to Potrero Hill. They would stay up the entire night before Thanksgiving, boning and trussing. There were no good chef’s knives in that house then, so strings of meat bounced dangerously around the room with every nip and tuck, and the kitchen floor eventually took on a fatty sheen from all the spills. We’d host big Thanksgivings too, with a long table to accommodate a mob of friends. There was always a lot to drink; the living room was always too dark; you usually couldn’t even make out the color of what sat quivering on your fork — that is, if you were sober enough to care by the time all the food was ready. I recall, on one boozy occasion, trying to separate out the excavated components of my turducken slice — to appraise them each, and assess how their individual qualities affected the flavor of the opulent whole. At this, I failed.
Like most people who have studied up on the subject, I hold corpulent football personality John Madden responsible for the turducken’s first wave of popularity. Until he had a change of heart in 2008, he used to gleefully dole out massive specimens to Thanksgiving Bowl victors. Bestowing credit for the preparation’s actual invention, however, is a tougher proposition. Paul Prudhomme got a nod for a while, but his role — attributed loosely to a 1983 appearance at a festival in Duvall, Washington — has not been verified. In a November 2005 article in National Geographic, Calvin Trillin presented Herbert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice, Louisiana as a long-running, immensely popular purveyor of pre-assembled ‘duckens, but avoided making any claims about its involvement in the dish’s origins.
The concept of matryoshka-style holiday roasts can stretch further out of the mainstream into relative gastronomic wilds, where history and legend hold a few smoldering lessons. The key to the success of a turducken is the duck. Its essence diffuses through the surrounding layers of stuffing to saturate its inherently less delicious comrades — the chicken within, the turkey without — with spurts of fat and heady flavor. Replacing the turkey with its opposite — a silken, grease-spitting goose — yields a gooducken, a much richer endeavor naturally quite beloved in England. I like the idea of losing the unctuous goose, retaining the turkey, and adding a fourth bird, perhaps even a fifth — maybe a wee quail, petite and boneless, buried down in the depths, folded up around a hard-boiled egg, a single chestnut, or a minature wad of stuffing, and then, for the outermost layer, the fifth, an entire emu. Imagine that, an emurckenail. I’m not sure how emu — fine-grained and somewhat beefy — would jive with all that paler stuff but someone — probably not me — should find out.
After a brief bit of research, my fantasy was steam-rolled by a rough and very real bird-iathon slouching out of the past. The largest recorded “nested” bird roast, or Rôti Sans Pareil took place at a royal feast in France in the early 19th century, and involved a breath-taking 17 feathery creatures, all boned and stuffed into one another, in order, from smallest — a six-inch-long Garden Warbler with a solitary olive squeezed into its tiny empty cavity — to largest, a huge, currently semi-endangered terrestial bird with a wingspan of seven feet called a bustard. Fifteen other birds — a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, and an Ortolan Bunting — were pressed, skin to gut, between those two extremes.
What’s more, Richard Sterling gave a pretty famous and utterly silly account of a chef friend’s even heftier undertaking in his book The Fearless Diner:
“I knew in my gut, in my gastronomic soul, that what I had long hoped was true. That it wasn’t just some wild traveler’s tale designed to stir the imagination and not the pot. The ultimate cookout was a reality. The only thing that could possibly be greater would be to spit-roast a giant squid. My wildest culinary dream could come true. Sven, Allah bless him and may his tribe increase, had done it. ‘I tell you no lie,’ he went on, sipping a cold one. ‘They wanted camel. I roasted a whole camel on a spit.’ ‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘Tell me everything.’ And he did. He told me how he stuffed the camel with six sheep, stuffed the sheep with chickens, and the chickens with fish. He told me how it took 24 hours to cook, and that he served it on a silver platter in the shape of a recumbent camel. He related how the tribesmen who were the sheik’s guests then attacked it with their knives en masse, feasted with their bare hands, and ate the meat down to the ivory.”
If, for you, after all that, mere turducken will still do come November 26th, you can savor it without shelling out for shipping or expending any effort beyond tending the oven. While supplies last, Ryan Farr of the esteemed 4505 Meats is working the local turducken angle, selling 20 pound behemoths — free range, organic, and stuffed to the hilt with cornbread-sausage dressing — for $250 apiece, available for order and subsequent pick-up in Potrero Hill. The stuffing between the layers will be made of chicken-and-duck sausage and cornbread. Yours will arrive in a roasting pan, on a bed of root vegetables and herbs, with an electric thermometer and alarm probe already inserted.
Slip him an extra twenty and maybe he’ll put a quail in there too.
Photos by Ryan Farr