Nothing says Thanksgiving like the sacrifice of not one, not two, but three different birds for your casual midday repast of excess.
I don’t mean to sound high and mighty about Potbelly Sandwich Shop’s new turducken sandwich, a holiday offering that kills three birds with one stone-cold stale idea. I’m a meat eater, after all. My weekly column on the region’s more affordable restaurants is a veritable smorgasbord of dead animals. But, to me, the primary reason for the Thanksgiving celebration is to express gratitude for life’s bounty, including the turkey at the center of your dinner table. It’s a time to reflect on your good fortune in a country where 40 million people may not know where their next meal is coming from.
A turducken is not a symbol of humility and gratitude. It’s the opposite. It’s an ostentatious, Gordon Gekko cross-section of meats designed to signal your economic status and maybe even your general disregard for life on the planet. In a sense, it’s the perfect symbol for the current administration: an indulgent bite from an earlier era, seemingly free of the environmental and animal concerns of the present one.
Besides, the very concept of stuffing a deboned turkey with a deboned duck stuffed with a deboned chicken — for you fellow nerds, the term for this process is “engastration”— is more an engineering feat than a culinary one. Turducken has long struck me as Frankenfood created for those who don’t actually like the taste of bird meat: It’s a labor-intensive preparation, often augmented with corn bread stuffing and sausage, for those who think turkey is tasteless, chicken bland and duck too gamy to eat on its own. It’s wholesale poultry slaughter disguised as gastronomic innovation.
Well, now that I’ve laid out my biases, allow me to get down to work: Offering an opinion on Potbelly’s turducken, the Russian nesting dolls of fowl meats.
As I placed my order for the six-inch turducken ($8.05) at the Potbelly location near McPherson Square in downtown D.C., I asked the sandwich maker how the chain prepares its trio of bird meats. He lifted a stainless-steel steam pan from the line and gave me a peek at the product: It was coarsely chopped meat, molded into a loaf, more like a country terrine than a bird stuffed into the cavity of another bird. The employee said he couldn’t tell, by visual inspection alone, which meat was which. Under the dim lights inside this Potbelly, I could detect only a few pieces of dark duck meat tucked into the chunky mosaic of bird proteins, the whole thing held together with corn bread stuffing.
The sandwich comes with mayonnaise, a cranberry-honey sauce, tomato, lettuce, Italian seasonings and, oddly, slices of cheddar cheese, which, next to gumballs, is just about the last thing I associate with the Thanksgiving spread. The cheese, mayonnaise and garnishes lent the toasted sandwich a familiar Potbelly air: The fixings crowded out the more autumnal flavors, though not completely. Once that fatty smear of condiments cleared my palate, I could detect the distinct aftertaste of turkey and dressing. I tasted little to no duck, but that could have been the luck of the draw, since the amount of pricey duck may vary in each slice of bird loaf.
Despite my general contempt for the concept of turducken, I liked this sandwich. I ordered it twice (a nine-inch version will run you $9.50), and ate the whole thing both times. I even, per tradition, offered a small thanks to the unknown birds involved in this corporate poultry raid.
Come to think of it, I was also uncomfortable with Potbelly’s other seasonal offering, a “pumpkin pie” shake ($3.99). I watched the cashier prepare the shake to order: She placed a whole slice of pumpkin pie in a blender, along with several scoops of vanilla ice cream and some milk. The resulting drink was a nutmeg-scented sludge, creamy and sweet, with grainy particles of crust suspended in the liquid. It’s a high school pajama party drink. I might have liked it with two shots of bourbon.
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