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A Brief History of the Turducken

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Turducken | Photo: lonbinder

First: There was darkness. And then the Big Bang happened and gave the universe some light. And then a bunch of rocks just started smashing into each other, forming planets and moons and asteroids and solar systems and whatnot. And then that one fiery soup happened and small amoebas came out of it, eventually turning into dinosaurs, but they were dumb so they died. Humans showed up at some point, and just kind of puttered around for a few hundred thousand years. And then they, in their infinite wisdom, made the turducken and lived happily ever after.

But just when did this Turducken Event, easily the most important point in human evolution -- evidence of our dominance over the rest of the world, in particular the planet's birds -- take place?

Perhaps it's best to describe what a turducken is first: It's a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck stuffed into a de-boned turkey, the various cavities filled with stuffing of some sort (sausage is, fantasticaly, one of the more popular). While it may seem to be a somewhat new fad, the dish actually has a long and winding, and not quite pinpoint-able, history.

In Renaissance Europe, palace chefs were always going around making dead animals look alive, the better for princelings to stab into them at the table. Back in the 18th century, rich folks (those who'd be considered one-percenters these days) would put together something called The Yorkshire Christmas Pie. The earliest reference to this is from a 1774 book called "The Art of Cookery," available on Google Books. The recipe, which I have to copy in full because it's in old-timey English and, thusly, awesome, is as follows:

FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to piece; that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get.

Stick that sucker in a "very hot oven" for four hours and you're done!

From that starting point, the aristocrats just started kind of going nuts, stuffing as many birds as they could find into other birds. One such crazy person was Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, the gastronomist-about-town during the Napoleanic era in France. One of his most famous dishes was the rôti sans pareil, or "roast without equal." It included:

[A] bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler.

But these insanely over-the-top European delicacies are a far cry from what's eventually become the, comparably reasonable, American turducken. So where did the sudden rise in popularity come from?

In a 2002 article at the New York Times author Amanda Hesser tried to find out. She tracked it to Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme, who makes the claim that he invented the dish in a Wyoming lodge, a claim he continues to try to proliferate in order to make some extra sales during the Thanksgiving season. But, as Hesser finds out, some culinary experts believe Prudhomme should not be taking as much credit as he is:

Mr. Edge said, ''If this was going on in Charleston in the 19th century, it is likely that some other enterprising cooks in places around the South were preparing this dish previous to Paul Prudhomme's so-called invention of the turducken. It strikes me as a dish invented by men in a hunt camp,'' he added, ''men who have a snootful, who say, 'What would happen if we took this bird and put it in this bird?' ''

Which means we're left without concrete answers. The turducken is something that just kind of happened when it did, without a single Thomas Edison-like inventor around to patent and take full credit. It's an act of culinary evolution simply created "by the people." That said, we are easily able to track the dish's relatively recent rise in popularity to one particular person:

''The first one I ever had I was doing a game in New Orleans,'' Mr. Madden said. ''The P.R. guy for the Saints brought me one. And he brought it to the booth. It smelled and looked so good. I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.''

That "Mr. Madden" is the gregarious and stout NFL personality John Madden, who brought a turducken onto a 1997 football broadcast during Thanksgiving and started carving it. From there, it went viral. Whenever Madden would pop into broadcasts, references to the dish were consistent. And from there, to the eyes of millions, then to the Thanksgiving dinner tables of the most insane cooks wanting to prove their mastery over roasting meats.

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