Why Turducken Got All Trendy

It’s an ungodly Frankenbird, a multifowl mash-up with turd in the name. And until recently, unless you grew up in Southern Louisiana, turducken was a joke. A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, the whole thing packed with dressing. OMG! But then something weird happened. Turducken became a serious gourmet enterprise. Dean & Deluca is selling it for $100 this holiday season. How did turducken go from white trash to white tablecloth?

Junior Hebert claims to have invented turducken with his brother Sammy at their butcher shop in Maurice, Louisiana, five miles south of Lafayette, in 1984. A farmer came in with a freshly killed turkey, duck, and chicken (“in a tub,” Hebert, who’s 52 now, recalls). He wanted them stuffed, and the Heberts obliged, smearing pork stuffing all over the duck before shoehorning it into the turkey, then working the floppy boneless chicken into that. They filled it with cornbread dressing and sewed it up.

"I don’t even remember the old guy’s name," Hebert says. But he does recall inventing the name “turducken.” You can still buy the original Hebert turducken, and many do for Thanksgiving and Christmas. CHOW ordered one. (Staffers were split on whether it was a delicious Popeyes-like spicy-greasy comfort food, or a repulsive Popeyes-like spicy-greasy comfort food.)

Nevertheless, the original creation was too big for the Bayou. Sportscaster John Madden discovered turducken, and began giving one away to the winning team at the Thanksgiving Bowl in the late 1980s. And around the same time, haute-Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme began making it for his New Orleans restaurant, K-Paul, and included a six-page recipe for it in his Prudhomme Family Cookbook. His flamboyant version has three different stuffings (including oyster) and a gravy that contains eggplant, sweet potato, and Grand Marnier.

Despite its brush with national cult status, the turducken was viewed with indifference by most New Orleans residents.

“I think it’s a medieval pile of poo,” says Poppy Tooker, who lives in New Orleans and hosts the NPR-affiliated radio show Louisiana Eats!

Discovered by Hot Butchers
But one person’s heap of poo is another’s vehicle for earnest—i.e., unironic—revival. At New American bistro William Hallet in Astoria, Queens (a neighborhood where scenesters are moving in fast), chefs George Rallis and Gary Anza pay homage in a sandwich starring a tri-bird meatloaf (turkey, duck, and chicken) that they call turducken. They serve it on an onion roll with bourbon ketchup, alongside foie gras sliders and root-beer-float cocktails.

On Thanksgiving this year, Rallis and Anza pulled off a real version, boning the birds themselves and serving slices as a special for $30. “Everybody loved it,” Rallis says, a solemn note of accomplishment in his voice, as if taking on the legendary turducken was like running a marathon on a prosthetic leg.

Indeed, turducken is to at least one young artisanal butcher what “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is to start-up psychedelic rockers. It takes Ryan Farr, of San Francisco’s 4505 Meats and author of Whole Beast Butchery, approximately an hour to produce just one of the turduckens (pictured) he’s offered for three Thanksgivings now. Farr has to remove most of the bones (except for wings and drumsticks) from a free-range turkey sourced from Northern California rancher Bill Niman, then from a duck and chicken, then stuffs the thing with cornbread dressing containing 4505’s own sausage. It costs $295 and has sold out every year since he started doing it in 2009.

“It’s almost like taxidermy,” Farr says. (There’s a step-by-step of Farr’s process on the 4505 Meats blog.)

For a generation trying to revive the ancient profession of butchery, turducken is now, perhaps, the ultimate expression of craft.

You Can Get It at Costco
The demand for turduckens is such that not only are people willing to shell out big bucks for one from a boutique butcher like Farr or a gourmet retailer like Dean & Deluca, but now you can buy them alongside your online order for cases of Diet Coke. Last year, Costco.com began offering frozen turduckens nationwide, as a seasonal item. The retailer doesn’t divulge numbers, but a buyer acknowledged that turducken sales last year were in the thousands of dollars. The typical buyer, says Costco.com’s Mike Dorpat, is pretty high-income, and savvy about food. Go figure: Turducken has found a market with the upscale buyer.

Back in New Orleans, they’re now serving it at the tony Luke Restaurant of superchef John Besh, made with pastured poultry and sausage stuffing made with heritage-breed Mangalitsa pigs.

In other words, turducken’s gone from being a curiosity, an odd regional creation that has entered the nation’s lexicon as a metaphor for the ultimate mash-up, to the ultimate expression of artisanal skill.

That makes us wonder: What’s next? Will chefs and butchers attempt to revive the cockentrice, a bizarre medieval juxtaposition of pig and capon? Um, check that. It’s already happening.

Image sources: Top photo by Chris Rochelle; Ryan Farr's turducken from 4505meats.com

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