Want a sure-fire recipe for animating your Thanksgiving dinner this year? Try telling a table of Canadians – all buzzing on wine and the endorphins produced from a protein-rich turducken feast – that Thanksgiving is an American invention that was later copycatted north of the 49th parallel.
“We had pilgrims,” one of the guests at my Fakesgiving party earlier this week indignantly retorted to the non-Canadian who dared question the unverifiable origins of our sacred eating holiday.
“Thanksgiving is a universal harvest festival,” someone else chimed in.
“It’s all about celebrating how the colonialists broke bread with the First Nations,” another shouted.
Then somebody’s hair caught on fire from the candles on the windowsill behind her. Yes, it was an epic dinner party and not least because of the food, which almost everyone had a hand in preparing.
I’ve always wanted to make a turducken. Well, I have never had the desire to de-bone a chicken and stuff it inside a de-boned duck that is then shoehorned into a partly de-boned turkey, all individually layered with dressing. I’m simply not that skilled with a knife. Nor do I harbour the requisite masochistic tendencies.
But when Sebastian and Co. offered to deliver one, I jumped at the chance to hold an early Thanksgiving party at home and tell you all about this crazy multifowl mash-up.
The turkducken’s lineage is almost as elusive as the origins of Thanksgiving. Some say it is a white-trash specialty from southern Louisiana. Junior Herbert, a butcher at Herbert’s Speciality Meats in True Blood vampire country eight kilometres south of Lafayette, La., claims to have invented the turducken in 1984 when “an old guy” came into the shop with freshly killed turkey, duck and chicken and asked to have them stuffed.
But then the haute-Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme began making turducken for his New Orleans restaurant K-Paul, and included three flamboyant stuffing recipes in the Prudhomme Family Cookbook.
Others say turducken dates back to at least 1807, when Almanach des Gourmands (written by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, the French godfather of cooking criticism) described the coma-inducing rôti sans pareil (roast without parallel) as a bustard stuffed with a turkey, goose, pheasant, chicken, duck, guinea fowl, teal, woodcock, partridge, lapwing, quail, thrush, lark, ortolan bunting and garden warbler.
And now the Calgary-based Original Turducken Inc. purports to be the only federally approved producer of turducken in all of Canada (whatever that means).
Turducken has undoubtedly become trendy. And every decent local butcher from West Vancouver to Burnaby – not that there are many – offers its own version.
These big birds are not cheap. The price depends on the weight and quality of their ingredients. Expect to pay $8 to $12 a pound for a fresh turducken. Free-range poultry generally costs more. Call ahead. Most shops require at least 24 hours notice.
Some butchers offer a choice of stuffing, the option of having your birds brined and bacon wrapping on the exterior of the turkey. Pete’s Meats in Kitsilano assembles the outrageous-sounding turbacon – for which all the birds are stuffed inside a suckling pig, each layer lined with dressing and bacon.
My $250 turducken from Sebastian and Co. weighed about 23 pounds. Mind you, I fed a dozen people with it and could have easily accommodated 12 more. For about $10 a person, that’s actually quite reasonable.
For a smaller group, the West Vancouver shop offers netted turducken breast roasts – a chicken breast stuffed inside a duck breast stuffed inside a turkey breast (with layers of stuffing in between) – which weigh five to six pounds, cost $65 to $75 and feed about eight people.
Fine craftsmanship makes a difference. I’ve seen photos of turduckens cobbled together with so much string they looked like poorly knitted socks. If not carefully stuffed and stitched, the birds will collapse into a steamy mush when roasted.
Mine was a Norman Rockwellesque picture of tableside perfection, with a plump, barrel chest and chubby drumsticks crossed below its butt. Slit along the backside, it was trussed with thick string down a straight-edged line, making it look like a corset when turned over.
After seven hours in the oven (about two hours longer than expected, which helps explain the riotous wine-fuelled mood of my guests), the layers all maintained their integrity. As one friend noted, the duck was compressed by the surrounding weight and extraordinarily succulent, having absorbed the juices of the other birds.
I cooked the turducken at 275 F, but cranked the heat up to 350 F for the final hour. For the first five hours, I covered the drumsticks with foil so they wouldn’t dry out.
Butcher Sebastian Cortez suggested I roast the turducken on a flat baking sheet so it would be easier to pull off, rather than trying to lift it out of a high-sided pan. It was a good tip, but beware of the drippings. I sucked about a quart of juice from the tray during the cooking process. (The makings of a fantastic soy-kissed gravy, which one of my guests generously prepared.)
Slow roasting, which ensured all the fat was rendered out, gave the skin a gorgeous crispness and glorious golden colour. It almost looked like a Chinese duck roast.
Carving has never been easier. To get a picture-perfect cross section, remove the wings and slice it like a bread loaf.
The meat was unexpectedly juicy. Sebastian and Co. uses free-run, non-medicated poultry from small, local family farms. And you can taste the clean quality in every bite.
“For a dish that many think of as ‘stunt’ food, their version made for a beautiful and elegant presentation,” one friend wrote me the next day. “Other turduckens I have eaten are a meaty mess, with a mush of flavours and off-putting offal aromas. None of that here. Everything tasted as it should.”
Save for the burnt hair, Fakesgiving at the Gill residence was a resounding success. Next year, I might serve porchetta. No, it’s not traditional – unless you’re in Italy celebrating Cerelia, that country’s fall harvest festival. Whatever the true origins of Thanksgiving are, to me it is simply a good excuse to break bread with friends and have a great party.
Where to buy turducken in Vancouver:
Sebastian & Co. Fine Organic Meats: 2425 Marine Dr., West Vancouver; 604-925-1636; Sebastianandco.ca.
Cioffi’s Meat Market: 4142 East Hastings St., Burnaby; 604-291-9373; Cioffisgroup.com.
Pete’s Meats: 2817 Arbutus St., Vancouver; 604-730-1661. petes-meat.com;
Windsor Quality Meats: 4110 Main St., Vancouver; 604-872-5635;Windsorqualitymeats.com.