Sunday, November 18, 2012

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Poached Phoenix: An Elaborate, Nine-Bird Turducken

Little onions boiled in champagne were served with it, 
along with a lettuce-and-vinaigrette salad, 
and there was fresh fruit for dessert. 
Let a man from an old Creole family 
arrange a dinner for you and, of course, black, black coffee 
could be the only proper ending to the meal. 
That and deep, slow breathing.

Peter S. Freibleman

American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (1971)
With Thanksgiving nearly on us and Christmas fast on its heels, we well and truly have entered turducken season. Though it sounds like a Dr. Seuss creation, the dish — as most Americans now know — is not a single creature, but an amalgam of three: a chicken, a duck, and a turkey, each one boned out, stuffed into the next, and roasted. Its boosters have included New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, writer Calvin Trillin, and football commentator John Madden. Many assume that is a Cajun dish. They’re only partially correct.

Entrenched though its South Louisiana pedigree may be, the turducken has roots that stretch far into antiquity when animals stuffed inside other animals graced the tables of the wealthy. Among the cognoscenti, Hebert's Specialty Meats of Maurice, Louisiana is widely regarded as having introduced commercially produced turducken in the 1980’s. They sell thousands of the things to this day (see below for a link).

But before Hebert’s, there was Jimmy Plauche and his “special dinner” of nine birds, each nestled into the next larger one until one turkey encased them all. Each bird was cooked separately and the whole then poached in stock from all nine. Plauche lived not in Cajun-dominated Acadiana, but in New Orleans where he ran the popular restaurant Corrine Dunbar’s from 1956-88. Peter S. Freibleman describes just such a off-site special dinner in his 1971 Time-Life book, American Cooking: Creole and Acadian:
Now and then the owner of Corinne Dunbar's will work up a special dinner for a few friends, served not at the restaurant but in a private room at a hotel in the French Quarter where he can collar some chef to do his bidding for the two or three days it takes to prepare the meal. On one such memorable occasion, Jimmy Plauche…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. 
Assembling a modern turducken is something I can manage at home. This thing, though? If I could find the man or woman willing to take on the task, I'd gladly leave it in those capable hands.

Goes well with:

  • Want a more modern, streamlined turducken? Many places will ship one to your door, but Hebert's (pronounced "A bears") has been making them since 1985. Check out their online store at
  • Precious antiquarian booksellers will gladly sell you at inflated prices secondhand copies of the Time-Life cookbook of the world series from the late 1960's into the 1970's. Save your money. If you're patient, you can eventually buy the entire 27-volume collection (as I did) for 25 to 50 cents per book at yard sales and thrift shops. Including the little spiral-bound recipe booklets that accompany the larger books, I may have spent as much as $18 for the whole set. Don't dismiss them as corny, cheesy remnants from an unsophisticated era; these are well-written, well-researched, and engaging texts from knowledgable authors. 


Sylvan said...

Your comments on the Time-Life books got me to go check out the Provincial France one that I have, and indeed, it was authored by none other than M.F.K Fisher. With Julia Child consulting. Knowledgeable authors, indeed. However, I also have the spiral bound recipe book for 'Wines and Spirits' and, well, the recipes are Embury-esque in booziness. I'd love to know who wrote the main book.

Sylvan said...

Author was one Alec Waugh, brother of Evelyn Waugh. But more intriguingly, apparently the book includes "photography of wine making techniques in Europe that are probably no longer used (e.g., a photo of Madeira being poured over a naked boy prior to bottling)" Whoa. I guess G-Spirits isn't as innovative as supposed.

Matthew Rowley said...

I'm on the road this morning, but once I get back to the office I'll have to double-check that Madeira photo. I mean, that's the usual way to prepare Thanksgiving gravy around here, but wine? That's crazy talk.

Trid said...

I may have to find a happy medium between Turducken and Poached Phoenix.
Besides, poached? There's no yummy skin crispies with poaching. Feh!

Matthew Rowley said...

There's nothing stopping you from deep frying the phoenix once it's poached, Trid. Just a bit. Just to crisp the skin...