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Three-Bird Night

Getting a wrap on turducken, one layer at a time

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On a recent Saturday morning, a cooking class at the Farmer’s Kitchen at Turkey Hill Farm began with a cake-and-tea repast of Martha Stewart-like elegance. Margaret Osha, who owns the farm with her husband, Stuart, admits the domestic goddess is her idol.

Coteacher Linda Doane, owner of Maple Ridge Sheep Farm down the road, had brought lemon poppyseed cake. The eight assembled students, a mix of professionals and farmers wearing mom jeans and high heels, gathered in the Oshas’ sitting room around a coffee table stacked with back issues of Martha Stewart Living and various books, including Vermont author Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place.

The ladylike setting could not have been more at odds with the carnage that would follow. The group was about to prepare turducken.

The ugly portmanteau term refers to a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. Unlike a flightless turkey, the three-in-one concept has taken off in recent years. In 2002, New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser first wrote about the Cajun tradition of cooking the fowl combination, filled with cornbread and sometimes crawfish stuffing.

Eight years later, with culinary excess very much in vogue, the turducken and its outré glory seem tame beside, say, the barbecued-pork and sausage behemoth the Times calls the “Bacon Explosion.” The turducken is now so familiar it’s in the 2010 Oxford English Dictionary — the first edition to include the word.

Doane became aware of the dish when her husband, Tuthill, saw one being prepared on the Food Network. Doane cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving that year. She said, “It went over like a million bucks with my family. It was one of those things all of them ate — including the vegetarian.”

On this day, Doane joined Osha to teach the $75 class, whose students ranged from former chefs to novice home cooks. A few admitted they’d never heard of a turducken before signing up, but were eager to learn a new skill with the help of Osha, who has been teaching from her home kitchen for three years.

In the matter of turducken, Osha herself was still learning. She’d prepared her first one the day before so it would be ready for her class to try at lunchtime, just after they finished assembling their own. Like most of the class, she had never tasted the turducken’s muddled flesh.

Rick Dickson, a legal writer and researcher from Montpelier, had faith in the results. “It’s the Smucker’s of entrées,” he said. “With a name like that, it has to be good.”

Most turducken recipes have a Cajun flavor, with andouille sausage stuffing. Doane, who said she prefers a more traditional Thanksgiving meal, had “Vermontized” the Southern food. She and Osha set about preparing a feast. Students grabbed a knife (many brought their own) or spoon to help when they could.

Both dyed-in-the-wool farm women insisted on using local ingredients for the meal. Their version of sustainability would make most Burlington localvores look like they were eating Morgan Spurlock’s diet in Super Size Me.

“We always want everything on the plate to have been produced by your own hands,” explained Osha. As she added Brussels sprouts to a gleaming metal pot, she revealed that she’d wrested most of her ingredients from the deer who munch in her garden. When the veggies were done, Osha melted a generous slab of her own cows’ raw-milk butter to coat them.

Doane assigned a student to tear apart Osha’s cornbread for stuffing. That was local, too, its flour made from Roy’s Calais flint corn — an Abenaki heritage breed that Osha grew herself — and wheat grown in Randolph. Maple syrup, which the Oshas transport from their sugarbush with the help of draft horses, sweetened the bread and a side of cranberry sauce.

As the ladies mixed onions, summer savory and stock into the torn bread, Osha added pieces of sausage made from the Tamworth pigs she had recently butchered. If you haven’t kept count, that’s four kinds of meat.

The other three needed to be boned. Doane made a long incision along the spine of one of Osha’s Bourbon Red tom turkeys, which Doane had christened Tomas. The purply-red flesh more closely resembled venison than the white meat common in supermarket birds. She slowly ran her ceramic blade along the bird’s rib cage.

All went well until it was time to detach the legs and wings. The connective tissue surrounding the ball socket of the leg quickly broke Doane’s knife. She grabbed a metal blade and continued to maneuver the leg, trying to jimmy it free as she cut. The whole class felt the sweet release when she succeeded.

Having demonstrated the technique on one side of the turkey, Doane instructed the class to split into pairs and each tackle part of a bird.

Dickson excitedly cut into the other half of the turkey, while others hopped to the task of taking apart the meaty Turkey Hill Farm chicken and Tangletown Farm duck. One student working on the chicken let her knife slip and left a chunk of meat attached to the skin, which would be added to the stockpot. No matter, said Doane. “It’s very forgiving. It’s all going in there, anyway.”

Once the chicken and duck were boned and skinned, Doane splayed the turkey and stuffed it using what she called “nature’s implements” — her hands. She allowed a student to lay pieces of chicken on top of the stuffing, then added another pile of stuffing on top of that. She did the same with the duck.

Doane folded the turkey’s skin around the whole shebang, groaningly full of meat and moist bread. Students helped Doane hold the skin closed as she carefully threaded several poultry pins along the bird’s back like stitches. Excess stuffing spilled out. “That’s one weird-looking bird!” exclaimed Doane.

Osha turned away from preparing dessert to disagree. “Oooh! It’s beautiful,” she said, beaming.

The previous day’s turducken soon emerged from the oven, and the carving process was far from beautiful. The tender, juicy birds combined with stuffing just didn’t want to hold together. “I think we need to serve this with a spoon,” joked Doane.

Instead, students gathered around the farmhouse kitchen table and ate small pieces of each bird carefully served family style. The early Thanksiving feast ended with Osha’s pumpkin-chocolate tart.

Next time, Osha said, she may try a cherpumple, an example of the next wave of stuffed foods. An apple pie stuffed in a cherry pie stuffed in a pumpkin pie would be the perfect way to end a day of turducken.

Click here to see a video of Alice's turducken-building adventure.

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