DARING TO TURDUCKEN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Allow a metaphor. Let's say it's hot and you're thirsty. If you're the practical sort, you'll drink a glass of tap water and it'll do just fine. If you're serious about your water, you'll add ice. If you're the kind of person who cooks a turducken for dinner parties, you'll quench your thirst by running a fire hose from the hydrant out front.

The turducken is overkill, but gloriously so. Recently, two of my friends - one a trained chef and the other a guy with a big kitchen and a bigger sense of adventure - assembled, cooked and served a turducken.

But, since the poultry dealer was out of ducks, they made a turgoosen: a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey, with different stuffings in between the layers, each bird almost totally deboned (the turkey's legs and wings are left on) but otherwise intact. (Actually, it was a turgoosenen, because inside that regular-sized chicken was a Cornish game hen, itself stuffed with mashed potatoes. Layers and enormity are themes in this dish.)

A turducken, for sure, is an undertaking, a two-man job, a pickax when a garden trowel will do just fine.

So, why do it? Because Thanksgiving is around the corner? Because we're Americans? Because - why not? To turducken is to wrestle with the epic. It is to read Ulysses. It is to watch all three "Lord of the Rings" movies in one night. It is to build, from its constituent parts, a water-cooled computer, as another of my friends has. Why? Because he likes machines and because he is able. To make a turducken is an exercise in taming whatever bigness the world can offer.

In terms of grand feasts, the turducken is a late-comer, maybe a bit faddish, but it's got roots. There's a recipe from 19th-century France calling for as many as 17 birds, the largest a bustard and the smallest a Garden Warbler. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme says he invented the turducken, about 25 years ago. They're popular in the South, especially in Louisiana. Though most recipes are specific about the number of birds (three), the stuffings are open to experimentation, although most recipes call for at least one to be sausage-based.

Americans seem to have discovered the turducken in the mid-1980s and then, by all accounts, John Madden found out about it. Calling a Saints game in New Orleans several years ago, a team official brought several turduckens to the TV booth. Camera rolling, Mr. Madden rolled up his sleeves and dug in. Football fans nationwide said "Holy cow, what was that?" and now you can get a frozen, vacuum-packed turducken at Sam's Club for $55.16.

That's right, you could just buy the thing. But, as is the case with most pursuits, to be more fulfilled is to get one's hands dirty. Or chicken-y. I, for my part, can say that I played a small role in the making of the turducken.

Weeks before the feast, the chef found a workable recipe and got down to inventing the stuffings: an Italian (crusty bread, with pancetta), a Jewish (rye with ham, for irony), a French (with croissants and home-cured bacon), and then mashed potato, perhaps because he'd run out of ideas. The homeowner knows a guy up in northern Baltimore County and got a good deal on the goose (normally $130 by itself), the turkey and the chicken. He got the game hen at the supermarket.

Friday night, we gathered in the Butchers Hill townhouse and began chopping. We made the stuffings first, dicing the bread, the carrots and celery, the different kinds of pork. We spread each mixture along the bottom of casserole dishes, baked them, and then shoved all three hot dishes in the fridge (the chef was adamant about this step). In general, we did whatever the chef told us to do. We were in uncharted waters.

Then we got to the deboning. The chef went at the turkey, a thick 20-pound bird. The homeowner, having practiced on a chicken earlier, tackled the goose. They helped each other through tough spots. I sharpened knives when they needed it and soon enough, fortified by a glass of wine, sleeves up, I went at the bigger chicken. The chef talked me through it. The homeowner cheered me on. I deboned it. We all took a breath. We drank a beer.

Next, the chef and the homeowner assembled. They stacked the layers into a kind of pyramid: turkey on bottom, then bread, goose, bread, big chicken, bread, little chicken, and on top a dollop of potatoes. It looked huge, ridiculous, as if the turkey skin would never go all the way around, as if it were an unfurled tent that would never go back into its nylon bag.

They pushed, pulled, poked, and, when mashed potatoes squirted out, started over again. In the end, the homeowner decided to bear-hug the thing while the chef, using a homemade needle-and-thread apparatus fashioned from a disposable Bic pen's ink cylinder, did the stitching. He finally tied off the seam's knot at 2 in the morning. They discussed oven temperatures and settled on a plan of attack for the next day. The homeowner went upstairs, to bed. The chef fell asleep on the couch.

We guests trickled in around 1 in the afternoon. Eating snacks, we sneaked looks into the oven, even though a sign on the handle read, "Do not open for any reason--Mgmt." We drank some wine. We milled about. They opened the oven door at 7:30 that evening. The turducken rested on a wire rack. It was brown, and it smelled really good and rich. The turducken (or turgoosenen or whatever it was after seven hours of cooking) was huge.

But the chef was nervous. Worried about drying out the turkey, he had insisted on a 250-degree oven. He wasn't sure if the seven hours were enough, especially when, resting, our meal let drip a quantity of pink juice. Somebody said another hour and somebody else said two more hours. But the chef got to be a chef by prevailing through just such situations and, so, when he withdrew the stainless steel skewer from the turducken and placed it against his inner forearm, he knew. It was ready.

There were just two reactions. Some said, "Ewww." Some said, "Oh, my."

The chef sliced and dished. We saw right away that it was cooked just fine; the darker goose meat was the reason for the pink. We ate, and ate more. We sliced ourselves a third slice. We picked, and ate some more. Soon, we were full, and tired.

Somebody led a hip-hip-hooray. The homeowner and the chef may have heard it, but they may not have. The two of them had gathered near the stove, talking about how best, in six months, to procure a whole goat. They wanted to roast it.

"Easiest thing in the world," the homeowner said. "Just build a spit and there you go."

Seth Sawyers lives in Mount Vernon. He teaches writing classes at UMBC and is at work on a memoir about growing up in Cumberland in the 1980s. His e-mail is sawyers100@yahoo.com.

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