If you ever needed a reminder of what it means to be American, the Thanksgiving dinner table is a good place to start. That’s because every fall, for a certain subset of Americans, the practice of “stuffing” is pushed to its outer, extreme limits. Cue the turducken, the holiday frankenfood that makes Instagram food mash-ups seem like child’s play.
Unlike cutesy mac ‘n’ cheese bread cones or bacon-rolled sushi adaptations, the turducken is a feat of culinary alchemy that requires as much of a surgeon’s hand as it does a devil’s mindset.
The word itself must first be stitched together—a portmanteau of turkey, duck, and chicken. All three birds are deboned except for the end parts of the legs and wing tips, and the monstrous dish requires three stuffings to be prepared separately. “Then the whole thing is trussed up, like a French corset,” says Poppy Tooker, host of the radio program Louisiana Eats! and author of Tujague’s Cookbook: Creole Recipes and Lore in the New Orleans Grand Tradition.
Photo: Design Taxi
Hailing from south Louisiana, Tooker has more insight into this bizarro phenomenon than most. How the form popularized in the 20th century is a matter of dispute, but most can agree on a couple basic facts: the genesis of the turducken took shape at a meat market somewhere in southern Louisiana.
“Down here, it’s no mistake that on our license plate it says ‘Sportsman’s Paradise,’ says Tooker. “You’ve got these hunters who are killing a huge variety of fowl this time of year—ducks, quail, speckled belly geese.” Pair that avian overflow with the region’s distinct affinity for Voodoo, gris-gris, and other dark arts, and you’ve got a recipe for culinary magic.
The recently deceased chef Paul Prudhomme, the self-anointed turducken king, trademarked the name and helped spread the dish’s popularity. What’s telling, however, is that Prudhomme has never produced the turducken for sale in any form. The only time you can get his version is at K Paul’s restaurant in the French Quarter the day before Thanksgiving. “People stand in line from here to eternity to get a taste of that,” says Tooker. If you’re looking for a true holiday tradition, she says, the conversation starts with deep-frying turkeys; the turducken, on the other hand, has more of a cult following. It attracts those with an unquenchable lust for spectacle.
Culinary showmanship, of course, is a human impulse that spans far back into history. “There’s certainly a Medieval tie-in,” says Tooker. “Stuffing something that was stuffed within something else was a magic trick used to entertain royalty.” Sometimes live birds would fly out after a carcass was carved open. In the 1800s, roti sans pareil—the process of stuffing 17 birds inside one another—became a hallmark of French aristocracy.
While this type of animal-jigsaw rearrangement is nothing novel, its lingering presence does represent a particularly perverse desire. Not one just limited to maximal consumption of meat, but of something more sinister: the urge to synthesize various proteins into one ultimate pleasure center. Gastronomy, of course, is partly founded on the unabashed pursuit of epicurean delights. But the practice of essentially re-coding DNA feels particularly twisted, as though you’re doing God’s work in the kitchen. As Tooker likes to say, it’s similar to a chef working with GMOs without having to do the actual gene work.
Practicality, in other words, is not part of the equation for this heritage of protein debauchery. “In my opinion, a turducken is a Medieval pile of poo. No matter you you gild it, you’re lucky if you get a dozen presentable slices out of it,” says Tooker. Prudhomme published a recipe for the turducken in his second cookbook, with instructions that fill up 14 pages and require three full days of meal prep.
Well into the modern era, it’s not as though our desire to radically rewrite the genetic codes for multiple animals has been tempered. In New Orleans (which seems to be the Garden of Eden for over-the-top foods), you can also find fowl de cochon—a turducken stuffed into a boneless pig. In Heston Blumenthal’s BBC miniseries Heston’s Feasts, the British chef recreates period feasts such as the cockentrice, a Tudor-era specialty of mismatched animal parts including the head of a wild boar, the crown of a chicken, the wings and back end of a goose, and the torso of a lamb, which are all stitched together by a taxidermist. Inside the structure is a four-part meat mound. That Blumenthal decides to ignite the beast with firecrackers at the end only adds to the grand pageantry of it all.
All of this would indicate that pursuing turduckens and the like is a game for daredevils—one that becomes especially appealing when shock value is a premium on the Internet for thousands of fans tuning into your feed. Chefs are competitive by nature. If a bar is set, you can be sure that many are looking to raise it. As a result, the desire to up the ante has spawned even more grotesque creations from culinary wizards willing to push the boundaries. Almost a year ago, David Farley of Michael Mina’s RN74 created the “lambpigcow” (a.k.a. “Roast Beast,”) which consists of Wagyu beef rolled around 53 deboned animals. The production required heavy-duty supplies such as 200 feet of butcher’s twine and eight stainless steel hose clamps. A month later, the Mina camp unveiled the #TurDuckGatorPig, another monstrosity fashioned out of a bacon-wrapped alligator’s mouth crammed with a turducken.
But does all this remixing of parts do justice to the animals, or for that matter, the diner? Tooker has her doubts. “Anyway, humans could do very well with stuffing fewer animals into themselves rather than more in one sitting.”