November 23, 2016
I researched for weeks before deciding on a specimen turducken. After reading various blogs and reviews by other foodies I went with the Cajun Grocer's version recommended by the Wall Street Journal. It seemingly offered the perfect blend of cajun spice and salt, the optimal percentage of meat to stuffing, and most importantly, the best post-roast pan drippings for the ultimate gravy base.
The basic concept of engastration is in itself, drool worthy. Deboned meat stuffed into other deboned meat that is then roasted. Or in the case of the turducken, sausage stuffing shoved into the backside of a deboned chicken, then stuffed into a deboned duck, which is then forced into a mostly deboned turkey and cooked for five hours in an oven. The turducken is the quintessential exemplar of American epicurious ingenuity except for the fact that it is not American, or more specifically not Cajun, at all.
The Louisiana style turducken was made famous on live T.V. by John Madden in the 1980's. The story goes that a Louisiana native brought Madden one on the set and he ate it with his bare hands...Not surprising. Madden then began a tradition of gifting turduckens to players of the winning NFL team on Thanksgiving Day.
But the humble beginnings of the American version of engastration are guesstimates at best. Southern Chef Paul Prudhomme took credit for inventing the style of bird preparation, but then so does a Louisiana meat shop called Herbert's. Herbert's states that a farmer came into the shop in 1985 with three birds from his farm that he'd recently killed and asked the butcher to debone and stuff one into the other. Seems a little sketchy to me that a farmer would drive into town to pay someone else to do something that he could probably do with his eyes closed. How many poultry farmers don't know how to debone a bird?
The History Channel online suggests that the stuffing of game birds inside each other to roast for lavish feasts go back as far as the ancient Romans. But more concrete written confirmation of early forms of the turducken are readily found in European history. There is an extravagant recipe from 1807 by Grimod de La Reniere for a party entree consisting of seventeen differing birds, each deboned and stuffed into the other. The tiniest of the birds being a garden warbler. I suspect some unfortunate servant with excellent eyes had the tedious task of deboning that bird with early tweezers.
An elegant version referred to as "The Steaming Trinity" in a 1891 French newspaper article cites Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord's recipe of truffle infused champagne soaked quail tucked inside a young Bresse chicken which is covered in butter, then stuffed into a Berri turkey and carefully roasted over a "bright" fire. In this French presentation the cooked birds are dislodged and enjoyed separately, each generously slathered in bougie butter before consumed.
Simpler French versions have been found as early as 1807 and are almost as close to the American turducken as the British take on the tribird called a "royal roast". Royal roast enlists the body cavities of three to five birds but houses apple and sage stuffing rather than the spicy sausage filling. Some Brits likened the royal roast to a modern Yorkshire Christmas Pie.
Then there are the outlying engastrational provisions. Fare such as Kiviak, served at Christmas in Greenland. Prepared by wrapping defeathered seagulls in seal carcass, burying and fermenting them for months before partaking. Would this be considered Inuit-Korean fusion? Not sure if Kiviak would make it past my nose...
Even more elaborate is the turducken-like Indian dish from the late 1800's, a dinner presented during the visit of a Spanish Princess at the invitation of Maharaj Ganga Singh. A quail, grouse, chicken, turkey and goat stuffed into a skinned whole camel that was seasoned and roasted in a hole in the ground. Sounds like a meat coma.
We first started our own Thanksgiving turducken tradition three years ago. That was before I knew that turducken actually has aristocratic roots. My (self-described) metrosexual little brother initially laughed at me for cooking turducken. He thought it sounded kinda honky tonk...A low-brow preparation of the traditional Thanksgiving bird.
But that first year I made it and he ate it--with great enthusiasm. So did the other skeptics (Mom and Dad), former traditional turkey champions. It was actually so good that a turducken for 25 people didn't make it past the nine folks at my kitchen table. The turducken was a huge success. The only drawback was the lack of leftovers.