A Louisiana Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma
Thanksgiving is over. Most of it, at least. All but the lingering heartburn and resentments from the very difficult dinner table discussions with siblings, in-laws and other necessary relatives.
But forget about all that. Until Christmas, that is. With the same menu and the same relatives. And therein lies the root of a strange epiphany I just had.
Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong people during the holidays, because it was in a conversation over the weekend that I realized: I’ve never had turducken.
Now, I’m no Epicure, but I do have adventurous tastes. And I wonder: How is it that I have never tasted what is surely one of Louisiana’s signaturely (not a real word) unique dishes from our famed gastronomic pantheon.
Or should I say: Engastratic? Engastration is a haute cuisine term for stuffing one food inside of another and then maybe another and then, well – you get the point.
Why is that fancy words about food make it sound gross? Or worse – like surgery?
The provenance of turducken is much disputed and not to be debated here. What we all know is that, in Louisiana, turducken is a deboned chicken inside of a deboned duck inside of a deboned turkey. Hence: Tur Duk En.
It’s a mad mix of flavors and textures, generally tricked out with various savory stuffings and herbs. It’s the gastronomic equivalent of that great line by Joe Pesci’s character in the movie “JFK,” not coincidentally also set in New Orleans: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
That spoke to the plot to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The story of the turducken is much more complicated. And controversial. And to salve all the lingering resentments of that debate, to calm the entrenched parties who claim to have invented this treasured Louisiana delicacy, it’s worth noting that nobody from here came up with this idea.
The bird-in-a-bird-in-a-bird concoction dates back centuries. And it involves many more birds. A French dandy named Grimod de La Reyniere wrote up the ingredients for roti sans pareil – which means “roast without equal” – in his 1807 cook book called Almanch des Gourmands:
A bustard stuffed with a turkey, stuffed with a goose, 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 a bunting, stuffed with a warbler.
Anyway, Mssr. De La Reyniere attributed his recipe to a prior Roman Empire Bacchanalian feast, and that makes sense. Those crazy Romans! Nero fiddled while Thanksgiving dinner burned.
And I’m not making this part up, but a later adaption of this recipe had one take that entire avian jumble and stuff it into a pig before roasting. Which sounds about right. Anybody knows bacon fat makes everything taste better.
As for myself. My aims are much more humble this holiday season. Whereas, at some future family gathering, I do indeed hope to try a turducken, but for now, I’d settle for one of those chicken sandwiches from Popeye’s that everybody’s talking about.
The rest of that stuff(ing) is for the birds.