The average American meat eater consumes 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day.
About 3,000 calories come from the main meal, with its sausage-studded stuffing, maple sweet potatoes, buttery mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole topped with fried things. Not to mention the wine and beer and pumpkin pie.
In light of this, putting a turkey at the center of the table seems way too healthy.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving novelty and appropriate excess, I decided this year to try a turducken. The turducken is a mythical Cajun beast in which a deboned chicken is shoved inside a deboned duck, then stuffed in a partially deboned turkey.
A turducken usually includes stuffing — often with more meat, like pieces of ham, pork sausage or shrimp in rice or cornbread. It’s basically a Southern update on the (possibly apocryphal) Roman feast that involved a chicken, duck, goose, pig and cow, or ancient multibird British pies packed with now-endangered species.
Sportscaster John Madden helped popularize turducken starting in the late 1980s. Google searches turn up images of the former coach’s “nuclear” version with eight turkey legs sewn onto the roast, as well as one wrapped in bacon.
The food website Chow.com calls turducken an “ungodly Frankenbird, a multifowl mash-up.” At the “Bob’s Burgers” show at the Barrymore Theater earlier this month, comedian Eugene Mirman called it “‘Inception’ with meats.”
And in 2005, Calvin Trillin wrote a National Geographic piece about Maurice, La., where Hebert’s Specialty Meats produces more than 3,000 turduckens every year. “The laws of nature (may) argue against it,” Trillin said, but the Russian-nesting-doll take on a holiday roast remains popular in Southern Louisiana. The shrimp-and-rice stuffed turduckens made by Hebert’s are “about as difficult to carve as a pound cake,” he added.
Raised in the northern Midwest, I’d never had a turducken before, let alone seen one up close. I like chicken, duck and turkey. Why not put them together?
Unfortunately, since we’re still in the northern Midwest, our turducken options are a bit spotty, and they’re tough to assemble unless one has decent butchery skills. I’ve done some spatchcocking and duck deboning in my day, but I felt less than ready to take on a task the size of a turducken.
So I called Jenifer Street Market. They carry a frozen TurDucHen, made by Big Easy Foods in Louisiana. It includes pre-applied “Big Easy” seasoning, 6 pounds of stuffing inside the bird(s) and a list of ingredients as long as my arm. The whole thing costs $75 for a 15-pound box of meat, which looks like a fat, floppy turkey, its wings and legs still attached.
Though I did as Big Easy instructed and popped my turducken in the fridge to thaw for 48 hours, the bird was still partially frozen when I pulled it out on Sunday morning. The box said the turkey itself contained “broth, salt, sodium phosphates, sugar and flavorings,” so I figured no brine was necessary.
I broke my “do not rinse” rule in order to get rid of the stuffing. It contained preservatives like the synthetic antioxidant TBHQ and an “anti-foaming agent” (yikes). Where the stuffing had been, I stuck half a lemon and a cut-up onion, and set to making my own stuffing while the roast cooked.
I covered the turkey with aluminum foil, placed it on a rack in a large roasting pan and baked it at 400 degrees for about four hours, testing the temperature after three hours and occasionally adding water to the pan. At 165, we pulled out the roast and let it rest.
Based on many negative online reviews of the Big Easy TurDucHen (which one should probably skip once the purchase is made), I was pleased to find that the turkey was moist, relatively easy to carve and more than enough for the dozen or so guests I invited to taste the experiment.
Still, reactions to the turducken were mixed. The Big Easy roast includes duck breast, not a full duck, and getting a piece of it came down to luck.
“It’s like mystery meat,” said one friend, who later got a piece of liver (we think). “I don’t understand the point.”
There are lots of cons when it comes to a pre-made turducken, preservatives in the stuffing aside. At $5/pound, it costs more than the organic turkeys from Black Earth Meats at the co-op ($4.19/pound). The fresh Amish turkey I’ll pick up at Steve’s on University Avenue next week costs $3/pound.
The duck and chicken were better than the turkey, while the turkey legs, normally my favorite, were too tough. The turducken provided plenty of leftovers, but no carcass for turkey stock.
To this Northerner, the best (maybe only) thing this poultry monstrosity has going for it over a regular turkey is novelty. For a different Thanksgiving centerpiece, try a turducken — but maybe make it yourself.