In the world of great culinary creations, one triumph reigns supreme during the holidays: the turducken. For those not intimately acquainted with this meat masterpiece, the turducken consists of a de-boned chicken stuffed inside a de-boned duck stuffed inside a de-boned turkey. Each layer is padded with stuffing. This new beast is then prepared as a traditional turkey would be: roasted, braised, fried, grilled, barbecued, it’s up to you. In its glory days, the turducken was popularized by the great Chef Paul Prudhomme, but no one is exactly sure who invented it. We do know it originated in the specialty meat stores of South-Central Louisiana. There is some evidence that it may have found its American origins in a meal created by the unnamed owner of Corinne Dunbar’s, a Creole restaurant in New Orleans.
According to a piece published in American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (published in 1971), “Now and then the owner of Corinne Dunbar’s will work up a special dinner. It seems that someone had heard somewhere that you can stuff a bird into a bird into a bird, just as long as you can find a bird big enough to contain the last one. He found nine birds around town, and tried it. The dish he served consisted of a snipe that was stuffed into a dove that was inserted into a quail that was placed in a squab that was put into a Cornish game hen that was tucked into a pheasant that was squeezed into a chicken that was pushed into a duck that was stuffed into a turkey. All the birds had been boned, and each had been boiled separately with seasoning to make a stock. A stuffing of wild cherries and almonds was placed around each bird to make it fit snugly into the next. The final nine-bird result was poached in all the combined stocks. When the chef carved it, the partakers felt as if they were eating a single legendary bird, a sort of poached phoenix.”
But the tradition of putting birds into other birds can be traced back to earlier European history. One of the most notable being the rôti sans pareil consisting of 17 different birds starting with a garden warbler and ending with a bustard made in 1807 by Grimod de La Renière for a royal feast. This is still not the oldest evidence of the tradition. Similar creations were made by the Romans. There is also Kiviak, a traditional Christmas dish from Greenland that consists of defeathered seagulls wrapped in a freshly disemboweled seal carcass, which is then buried and left for months to ferment. Ok, that one may be a bit of a stretch.
While its past can be debated it’s safe to say that the future of the bird-within-a-bird-within-a-bird is in America. Some chefs have taken the recipe and made it bigger (the American way) by adding a small pig into the mix – it essentially swallows the turducken and is then cooked. Others have tamed the monster and made it more elegant. The Quaduckant is the upscale version consisting of a quail stuffed in a duck stuffed in a pheasant. The fowl-based Frankenstein monster may be viewed as a symbol of American decadence, but its history suggests so much more, so eat up and know you’re participating in a great tradition.