Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
In Maurice, Louisiana, it’s time to make turkey-stuffed-with-duck-stuffed-with-chicken.
I finally got Samuel Hebert on the phone at 7:30 a.m., two days before Thanksgiving.
“We’re really busy right now,” he told me, his voice hoarse. There was a lot of racket in the background. “Could I call you back on Friday?”
Not possible: I needed to know about turduckens right now.
Hebert (pronounced ay-BEAR) is the owner of Hebert’s Specialty Meats, a butcher shop in Maurice, Louisiana where many believe the turducken was invented. That means that this time of year, the place is lousy with poultry. During the holiday season, Hebert’s shop stuffs up to 200 turduckens in a single day.
If you have never encountered one, a turducken is what happens when a deboned chicken is stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is then stuffed inside a deboned turkey. The limp layers of bird are separated by all manner of dressing—cornbread is Hebert’s favorite—and baked for five-and-a-half hours on low. The final product weighs about 16 pounds. It’s a spectacular centerpiece for any Thanksgiving table. But around Maurice, Hebert says, turduckens are commonplace. “I think to them it’s pretty normal now,” he told me, “but people from out of state think it’s like gold.”
The late celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme is often credited as the inventor of this avian trifecta. After trademarking the term in 1986, Prudhomme strove to be turducken-famous, popularizing the dish via interviews and TV appearances. Turduckens broke into the national limelight when Amanda Hesser of the New York Times Magazine wrote a popular article about them, describing the dish as “a free-form poultry terrine layered with flavorful stuffing and moistened with duck fat.” And when Anderson Cooper asked Prudhomme what the turducken tasted like in a 2008 CNN interview, he answered passionately: “Can you imagine how it would feel to have your fantasy girlfriend in front of you, and you’re sixteen years old, and you’re just gonna get your first kiss?”
But Prudhomme also seemed intent on obscuring the turducken’s genesis story. He told Hesser it may have been a cabin in Wyoming, which he refused to name. Other food historians have noted that the whole stuffing-birds-in-birds convention was popular in medieval cookery. But Samuel Hebert, whose father and uncle opened Hebert’s Specialty Meats in 1984, says his dad remembers the first turducken clearly.
“I think it was in 1984, and an old man came in with some birds from his yard,” Hebert told me. “He had a turkey, a duck, and a chicken, [and] he just asked them if they could debone them and put them all together… They thought it was kind of different, but they just did it. That’s basically how it happened.”
Hebert’s, which calls itself the “home of the deboned chickens,” would have been good place to execute such a project, and as the fame of turducken spread, the shop built a profitable subspecialty in the compound birds. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hebert’s butchers stuff between 2,500 and 3,500 turkeys. That’s about two-and-a-half turduckens for every one of Maurice’s 1,280-some residents. Located just south of Lafayette, the town is best known for three things, according to this 2005 National Geographic article: a sports bar called City Bar, the Maurice speed trap, and the turducken.
Sales of the town’s signature creation have been picking up lately, and several other Louisiana meat purveyors have gotten in on the turducken action. The reason they haven’t gone the way of the Tofurky, Hebert says, is because they’re relatively cheap. The average turducken sells for $66 a pop, but it’s so dense with meat that it can feed 25 people. “That’s about $2.50 per person,” Hebert said.
You can make a turducken at home, if you’re a glutton for punishment as well as poultry. In fact, Prudhomme insisted that doing so was the only way to truly understand the beast. But this is probably one of those dishes best left to professionals. At Hebert’s, butchers can debone each bird in four minutes or less. Then they stuff each layer with four balls of dressing, sprinkle with seasoning (but not too much!), sew the whole monster back together, and put it in the oven.
Note: Home turducken cookery poses some food safety challenges, because of the multiple layers of raw poultry. Make sure the innermost layer gets up to a minimum of 165 degrees.
Turducken is now far more than the sum of its parts; it’s metaphor as well as meal, often used to describe any mind-boggling combination of things, like the unholy “piecaken,” a Thanksgiving-themed dessert that involves three types of pie stuffed inside a cake. But in Maurice, turducken is just a job. And with the clock ticking toward Turkey Day, Hebert needs to get back to work.
“Everybody tries to claim it now,” he said. “[But] we got it pretty much down to a science.”