I just FInished watching the Peanuts Thanksgiving episode, in which Chef Snoopy cooks up a highly unorthodox feast of popcorn, bread slices, candy, and pretzel sticks. While this is an extreme example, I'm becoming convinced that Americans really love to fuck with the construct of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. A couple of years ago, the deep-fried turkey craze was sweeping the nation; before that, barbecuing our national symbol of gratitude and gluttony was a popular fad.
The trend of the moment seems to be the "turducken," a curious creature that's popping up on websites, in lively discussions among local musicians, and in last week's New York Times. It requires a laborious Cajun cooking technique that involves stuffing a chicken into a duck, and then stuffing the entire chicken-duck hybrid into a turkey. The fowl fusion is then slowly roasted for 12 hours, emerging with the outward appearance of a traditional turkey, but revealing delightful internal layers of succulent duck, tender chicken, and three distinct, fragrant flavors of stuffing.
So it shouldn't have surprised me when I got the call to form "Team Turducken" with Seattle musician Jake London (a decorated veteran of deep-fried and grilled Thanksgivings). He had already enlisted the talents of fellow musician and meat maverick Scott Balikian, so how could I refuse?
We started with a fresh, four-pound, free-range Rocky Jr. chicken, and a 25-pound turkey ($8 and $23, Larry's Market). We then jetted down to Don & Joe's Meats (Pike Place Market), where they set us up with a fresh, five-pound duckling ($16), as well as spicy andouille sausages ($7) for our stuffing.
In order for all the birds to fit snugly inside each other, they must be butterflied and completely deboned, save for the turkey's wingtips and drumsticks, which are left intact to maintain a turkey shape. Jake turned our birds into three wide, flat fillets; Scott and I busied ourselves making stock and baking our three stuffings.
The assembly process was our most daunting step: Would these things actually fit together and resemble a turkey? We carefully laid out the turkey, affectionately massaging it with Jake's homemade barbecue spice rub and covering it evenly with andouille dressing. Next was the duck, arranged meticulously over the turkey and swathed in a sweet paprika cornbread stuffing. The chicken was the last layer, and received a generous handful of shiitake-chestnut dressing.
We used a large sewing needle and French linen cooking twine to suture up our creation. Scott held the two sides of the beast tightly together (imagine trying to zip an overstuffed suitcase) while Jake pushed the needle through and I pulled it out using a pair of needlenose pliers (because the needle got so slick, it was difficult and dangerous for one person to pull it through without assistance). We were pleasantly surprised to see that our birds had enveloped each other quite nicely and maintained a regular turkey profile.
After 12 hours at 190 degrees, our turducken reached the desired 165-degree internal temperature and exhibited a golden brown, mildly wrinkled skin. We let it rest for an hour while I mashed potatoes and cooked up a simple mushroom gravy.
When we made our first cut, we were astonished at the results-- visions of squishy slices falling apart had haunted us, but neat slabs of juicy meat carved easily (especially with the absence of bones!), exposing their tasty alternating layers of stuffing and bird. We cracked a few bottles of pinot noir and tucked into our Frankenturkey.
Although no one was disappointed, it became apparent that the turducken was more of an aesthetic thrill than a stimulating fusion of flavors. The turkey's taste still dominated because of its girth, and the chicken, while pleasantly moist from nestling near all that duck fat, was buried so deeply that we didn't hit it until we sliced our way to the back end of the turducken.
Nevertheless, the whole process was such an adventure, we were soon engaged in an animated discussion about what we could do next: smoked pork shoulder lodged under the turkey breasts? Layers of prosciutto, pancetta, and truffles in addition to the stuffings? A smelt stuffed into a trout stuffed into a salmon? It's comforting to know that deviation from tradition knows no boundaries.