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Thanksgiving of 2005 was my happiest and most memorable ever. We made a Turducken. It was terrible.
I was 23, working out of a cubicle, running numbers on car lease portfolios and thinking about second careers—when I heard tell of a recipe that, for some unholy reason, called for stuffing a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. (I would later realize this could be directly attributed to my future boss, who had reported on turducken for the New York Times three years earlier, thereby making "engastration" a part of our national dialogue.)
I became obsessed with cooking this thing at our next Thanksgiving, and making my family help. They were amused, and agreed that we could skip a year with the usual turkey and cornbread stuffing and giblet gravy. And then we realized what was involved.
Have you ever thought through not just the physical logistics of making a turducken, but the calendaring? If you count backward from dinnertime on Thursday, your turducken will need to cook at 225° F for 8 hours. Before that, you will need to have manually deboned, stacked, rolled, and sewed back together three birds such that they look like the original turkey, but fatter, lumpier. The deboning takes a good couple hours for two amateurs, requires sharp knives, probing fingers, and a hammer, and will get fragments of meat and bone and skin on more surfaces of your kitchen than you will be prepared for.
Before that, you will have to have already made and cooled the three different stuffings, which will have required baking cornbread, staling and crumbling 14 cups of breadcrumbs, dicing 12 cups of onions, 9 of celery, and 8 of green bell peppers, making stock, and other sundry prep. And before that, there's the sourcing: the grocery shopping for the birds, the andouille, the meat needle.
I knew I couldn't just show up on the big day, so I spent one of my five allotted vacation days for the year to come home and pull my weight in the Turducken operation. We cooked for two straight days, then invited all our closest friends and their dogs over for the big event.
Finally, it was done and we carved into it, and it had worked! The innermost bird wasn't raw! It sort of held together! It looked like a turkey, but you could slice it like a meatloaf!
And the taste? One indistinct mush of Cajun spice and starch and bird, with no crispy skin or crunchy corner piece of stuffing to liven up the experience. Everyone sort of wished there were regular turkey. Instead, there was a lot of this other thing.
But we'd had the most fun that year, laughing, butchering, drinking, dancing, and not fighting. We've bragged about the feat to all our friends, referenced it in family emails for a decade, threatened to make it when traveling overseas.
So why does a not-very-good turducken that eats up time and resources and is much, much less than the sum of its parts make for the best Thanksgiving?
With a brand-new project, you are very much in it together, and if it turns out badly, it's no one's fault. It's the recipe's! (This is why I've always been more comfortable entertaining when I'm "recipe testing." I recommend this.) You aren't playing into the classic politics and gamifying of family tradition—I'm making the mashed potatoes my way this year. He is the one who overcooked the turkey and she botched Grandmother's hallowed stuffing recipe. You threw away the potato cooking water again.
Just like pulling all-nighters together in college or running a Tough Mudder or working at a food/lifestyle/ecommerce company during the holidays, Turducken can bond people in ways that no low-stakes, low-effort activity can. Do I remember regular, old Thanksgiving 2004 or 2006 or 2010? Nope.
I'd wager that the tint and salience of those memories is even better when you fail together, for the sake of the story, the writing of family history, the camaraderie—if not for the sake of the meal. It's the stories of shared hardship and charming disasters and flaws that unite us—the misguided haircuts and faux-pas housewarming gifts, the smoke alarms and shattered casserole dishes.
But Turducken wasn't just about collegial growth, it was personal. Turducken is how I discovered that butchering isn't icky, it's soothing—before I went to culinary school or worked in a restaurant kitchen, or even cooked anything that had bones or skin on my own. It's how I discovered that I loved getting lost in a cooking project and dissecting its story, and it's how I realized how much I like writing about food. During a lull in the process, I cracked a beer and wrote a lengthy MySpace wall post about it—ostensibly the first thing I published on the internet about food.