Bird(s) is the Word: The Turducken

Dr. Frankenstein is not a name often invoked during the Thanksgiving holiday, except perhaps when critics deride a certain culinary phenomenon that has crept upon plates throughout the past quarter-century. The Frankenstein monster, that crude assemblage of body parts stitched into an ill-fated attempt to recreate life, has at least one counterpart in our nation’s kitchens — the “turducken.”

More than mere portmanteau, the legendary dish comprises a whole turkey, stuffed with a whole duck, which, in turn, is stuffed with a whole chicken, all in a manner that recalls Russian nesting dolls — that is, if nesting dolls were deboned and made of various species of fowl.

Though one is more apt to find a turducken in a Lewis Carroll story than in nature, there is some precedent. Consider the duck-billed platypus that, with its otter feet, beaver tail, venomous spurs and reproductive egg-laying, for example, has served as both an argument for and against “intelligent design.” A) only a supreme being could play mix and match with the animal kingdom as such, and B) no god would ever take credit for such a thing. More to the point, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in its native habitat Down Under, and frankly, I hear it tastes like chicken. Just chicken? That’s like the foodie equivalent to a sorry punch line.

There is intelligent design behind the turducken, however, with at least two parties alternately receiving credit. Cajun-Creole fusion chef Paul Prudhomme (who appears to be the result of un-stuffing comedian Dom DeLuise) has proffered turducken as early as 1983 in Duvall, Wash. None other than venerable journalist Calvin Trillin attributes the origin of the beast(s) to Herbert’s Specialty Meats of Maurice, La., which likewise has been producing commercial turduckens since the mid-80s.

No matter what caché being the father of the turducken may confer upon these pioneers of gastronomy, neither has come anywhere near the nested-bird-extravaganza known as the Rôti Sans Pareil, or “Roast without equal,” which transpired in France during the early 19th century. All tolled, 17 birds were stuffed, one within the other, in a gustatory orgy that has yet to be repeated on civilized plates. A bustard was stuffed with a turkey, stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a pheasant, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a guinea fowl, stuffed with a teal, stuffed with a woodcock, stuffed with a partridge, stuffed with a plover, stuffed with a lapwing, stuffed with a quail, stuffed with a thrush, stuffed with a lark, stuffed with an Ortolan Bunting, stuffed with (finally) a garden warbler. The warbler is so petite it could only be stuffed with a single olive. Whether or not that olive had a pimento lodged in it is lost to history (where it belongs).

Unlike the turducken, the dish failed to catch on, if not for its relative inconvenience, then for its lack of a snappy name. If it were to have a name, I submit that it be “Wrong.”

A related trend that’s overtaken some Thanksgiving celebrations is the carving up of what are known as “heritage” turkeys. Like the “heritage” trend in everything from tomatoes to radishes, the turkeys are likewise rarer, weirder looking and more expensive. Also, anyone worth their genome would argue that “heritage” turkeys owe a genetic debt to dinosaurs. In fact, a theory has long been advanced that birds don’t just resemble dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs. The Dinobuzz page at the University of California Museum of Paleontology elucidates:

“Ask your average paleontologist who is familiar with the phylogeny of vertebrates and they will probably tell you that yes, birds (avians) are dinosaurs. Using proper terminology, birds are avian dinosaurs; other dinosaurs are non-avian dinosaurs, and (strange as it may sound) birds are technically considered reptiles,” it reads, then adds, “Overly technical? Just semantics? Perhaps, but still good science. In fact, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of birds being the descendants of a maniraptoran dinosaur, probably something similar (but not identical) to a small dromaeosaur.”

So, consider that, this Thanksgiving. The poultry on your plate is probably something similar (but not identical) to a small dromaeosaur. And it’s a reptile. Yum. Kind of makes one’s appetite go the way of the dino, or dodo, or whatever? Pass the Tofurky.