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November 20, 2009

Strive for simplicity this Thanksgiving

You approach the Thanksgiving table armed with a fork and a carving knife. Your mouth waters at the prospect of cutting into a fine, juicy turkey. This moment has been hours in the basting.

It’s a trap.

For beneath that deceitful turkey façade is a chicken, and beneath that, a duck. It’s quite literally the Russian nesting doll of poultry. 33 percent turkey, 33 percent chicken, and 33 percent duck, the Turducken is 100% terrible. It’s like the turkey’s evil, deformed twin, the one that’s kept in the attic chained to a radiator. And just like you would never give that twin somewhere to sit at Thanksgiving dinner, there is absolutely no reason to ever have a Turducken anywhere near your table.

Most Americans have probably never eaten a Turducken, but since the conception of this meta-“dish” in the mid 1980s, it has only grown in popularity. Thousands are shipped across the country during the week of Thanksgiving, John Madden shamelessly plugs them every now and then, and I am sure that many enterprising cooks looking to scare away their loved ones have prepared the dish as well.

Seeking to justify the existence of this culinary Frankenstein, foodies cite examples of food-within-food-within-food throughout human history. One ancient Bedouin wedding feast consists of a camel stuffed with a lamb, and then stuffed with chickens, fish, and eggs in descending order. The French royalty of the 19th century, in all of their pomp and arrogance, decided to see how many endangered birds they could eat at once. How many birds does it take to get to the center of a “Rôti Sans Pareil” (Roast Without Equal)? Apparently 17—at the center of which is a poor, little Garden Warbler.

But what’s the point of this gorging? Why ruin a turkey by sticking a chicken and a duck in it? All three meats are completely delicious in their own ways. Yet when combined, they lose their individual qualities and become, like SPAM, some grotesque amalgamation much less than the sum of its parts. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it’s delicious, don’t stuff it with more poultry.

The Turducken shows that when it comes to food, quality will always defeat quantity. I’d like to extend that thought to Thanksgiving in general. I think most people forget that no one is impressed by a green bean casserole that is as bland as it is enormous. Or a pumpkin pie that is about as delicious as the decorative cornucopia sitting next to it. Admittedly the visual of a turkey in the middle of a large table surrounded by a plethora of side dishes basking in its glory is one of the hallmarks of the Thanksgiving feast. But a meal is meant for eating, not staring at. Luckily this situation, as ingrained into the American psyche as it has become, is amendable.

Just stick to a few basics, and make them as damn near perfect as you can. My family has always adhered to just a few dishes presented in a series of successive courses. It may be unorthodox, but I have never had to complain about turkey being as dry as the Mohave or about the sickly sweet cranberry sauce. Each dish is treated individually and with respect. And afterward, I don’t feel like hibernating until next Thanksgiving rolls around. Plus, I’m always first in line for Black Friday.