The day John Madden met the turducken

Illustration by Brandon Loving

GLENN MISTICH TOOK slow, tiny steps toward the entrance to the Superdome. His hands shook inside the gloves he wore to carry a monstrous 17-pound dish covered in foil. His wife, Leah, and three young kids bounced alongside him.

A friend, New Orleans radio personality Bob DelGiorno, was also walking with him to the Rams-Saints game on Dec. 1, 1996. DelGiorno had been doing on-air Saints game days for long enough to have become friendly with John Madden, and he had told the former coach-turned-broadcasting legend about a delicious vegetarian's nightmare for which Mistich had become well-known in the New Orleans area. It was a deboned duck stuffed inside a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned turkey, with a generous mix of cornbread and sausage dressings slathered throughout.

The dish's name? The turducken.

Madden's friends call him a "fork man," which is a kind way of saying the guy can crush some food. Once DelGiorno assured him the turducken was real, Madden was all-in. So that's how Mistich and his family found themselves walking into the Superdome that day.

Mistich wasn't a sports fan, but he knew Madden, who was then at the peak of his powers. He had become the voice of football, earning more per year than any NFL player, and he had emerged as a video game visionary and an A-list product endorser. If Jake from State Farm had been around in 1996, chances are he'd have been talking insurance rates with Madden instead of Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes.

It's impossible to overestimate the impact that food had on Madden's rise. He and Pat Summerall did 22 straight Thanksgiving broadcasts starting in 1981, and Madden's everyman appeal came through via food more than anywhere else. In 1989, Madden presented his first Turkey Leg Award to the best player from that year's game, Reggie White. The next year, he handed one to Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and made an offhand comment that he wished he had a six-legged turkey so the Cowboys linemen could get in on the action.

Enter Joe Pat Fieseler, a barbecue owner in Texas. He invented a six-legged turkey soon after, and Madden started handing them out the next year. When he announced his All-Madden team at the end of every season, Madden also made sure food was a theme of the show -- his favorite players were often big, forgotten linemen with big appetites, so he thought the perfect all-star awards should be meat and gravy, not trophies and plaques. He had become America's fork man.

In the days before the 1996 game, Mistich went through the complicated turducken process with his own hands. This one had to be perfect.

On the day of the game, Mistich cooked the turducken -- having spent the previous few days deboning all three birds, cooking the dressings and then intricately sewing the birds together. He packed up the family and met DelGiorno outside the stadium. As Mistich shuffled to the gate with the steaming dish, his stomach felt like a turducken that had been sewn too tight.

Mistich's meat place, The Gourmet Butcher Block, was doing quite well -- he sold around 200 turduckens per year off a menu of about 25 items. He couldn't help but smile as he looked at how giddy his kids were to get to go into the Superdome and meet John Madden. Seeing them like that gave him a brief feeling of calm, that everything would be fine even if Madden didn't like the turducken.

But the group hit a snag: The Mistich crew didn't have credentials, and even when DelGiorno showed his placard and vouched for them, a security guard shook his head and pointed at Mistich's hands.

"Is that food?" he asked.

"Yes," Mistich said.

"Sorry, no outside food whatsoever," the guard said.

DelGiorno tried to jump in. "I've been broadcasting these games for years, and this is for John Madden."

The guard was insistent. "No exceptions."

Mistich exchanged a resigned look with his wife, and they began to think maybe they'd be eating this turducken themselves.

"Hold on," DelGiorno said, and he pestered the security guard to call his boss. DelGiorno was persuasive and persistent, and eventually the guard relented. A minute later, the security guard came over and apologized as he waved them through.

The turducken had entered the building.

THE ORIGIN STORY of the turducken is a lot like the turducken itself: a little bit of information, packed inside some controversy, bundled up in folklore.

Let's start with the basics everybody can agree on. Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme patented the word and recipe in 1986, although Louisiana brothers Junior and Sammy Hebert dispute Prudhomme's claim. They say they invented the meat product when a customer came in and asked whether they could put together a chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey. All three probably deserve a heaping helping of credit for the turducken.

By the time Mistich got a job at one of the Hebert meat shops in the early 1990s -- he was dating Sammy's sister Leah at the time -- lots of places were making turduckens. The dish had a nice cult following in Louisiana but wasn't well-known outside the state. Mistich might not have invented the dish, but on that day in 1996, he played an indisputable role in launching the turducken into the national consciousness.

His big plan back then had been to build up a nice business and hand it off to his kids someday. Mistich says his own father was in and out of his life as a child, frequently berating him when he was around. Mistich dropped out of high school and bought a commercial fishing boat, hoping to catch his father's eye by pursuing the same profession. But the relationship kept deteriorating, and Mistich eventually quit fishing and went to work with Leah and her brother at his shop.

Mistich's grandfather, who went by Nean, had been a meat man, traveling up and down the Mississippi River 100 years earlier in a wooden carriage with no refrigeration. Nean, a first-generation Croatian immigrant, would sell as much as he could for a few hours, then hand out the rest for free on his way home for the night. Mistich thought about that when he fell in love with working at the butcher shop -- maybe there wasn't much of a connection between him and his dad, but he felt it with his grandfather every day.

From his first day at the butcher shop until now, Mistich has always had a special knack for the careful process of making a turducken. He is a complex contradiction when it comes to the birds. He is, on one hand, an avid meat eater who owns a butcher shop. And, on the other, he's a churchgoing avid hunter who believes in conservation and killing only what you plan to eat. He often says a thankful prayer to the chicken, duck and turkey before he gets to work on a turducken.

And it's hard work. Mistich is tough on his turducken crew, demanding a library-like backroom where the turduckens are assembled. He wants no bird to go to waste. "When we're training people, I encourage them to not talk, to concentrate 100% on the birds," he says.

These days, Mistich doesn't do turduckens one at a time. He has a two-day process for making them in large lots of up to 150. First, he and his crew debone the birds. They'll meticulously debone 150 chickens, put them in giant buckets that go in the industrial-sized fridges. Then 150 ducks, then 150 turkeys. The Usain Bolts of his butcher shop can do three birds in a little under five minutes -- a chicken in 45 seconds, then two minutes each for the duck and turkey.

At the same time, another crew is mixing and cooking the two different dressings. One is sausage-based, and the other has a cornbread base. For 150 turduckens, they'll brew massive tubs of dressing (337 pounds of sausage, 150 pounds of cornbread), then cook everything on the stove for about 10 hours. At the end of the day, they take the pots off the stove and move them to the refrigerator to cool overnight.

Day 2 is assembly time. Mistich usually chips in himself to put the dishes together. Very few things in life bother him like a badly put together turducken, or a bird falling on the floor or going missing. It's a regular occurrence for the whole gang to walk around at the end of the day perplexed at how they're missing a duck or seem to have an extra chicken. "Once in a while, somebody -- including me -- will mess up the count," Mistich says. "But you're talking about 450 birds, so that's bound to happen."

Mistich starts with a turkey, flattened out on the table. Then he plops down a glob of sausage dressing, which is smoothed out into a thin layer. Next, he lays out the duck, followed by another layer of sausage dressing, then the chicken and a glob of cornbread dressing.

Now comes the hardest part, bundling it all up. Before the final step, the turducken looks like a layered cake of meat and dressing. But in one sudden motion, Mistich powers up both sides of the turkey to swallow everything inside. The turkey has to be stretched just right, not too tight and not too loose, and then Mistich zips thread through it like he's lacing up sneakers. He makes 5-10 incisions across the top of the turkey, using about 3 feet of thread per turducken, then ties it together at the end.

He sells about 5,000 turduckens per year, half in the shop and half through shipping. The mail-order birds go in the freezer, and you can get one within a week or so for $200. Every turducken weighs about 17 pounds and feeds 30 or so people.

Before cooking, each one has to thaw in the fridge for 4-5 days, then roast for four hours at 350 degrees. The aroma from the oven spreads out like a warm meat blanket across the house, the potent smell of Thanksgiving turkey times three. The dressing and meat juices crackle like the three birds are in the oven fighting each other. Once the thread is removed after they come out of the oven, the birds hold together quite well, even after slicing.

At first glance, a cooked turducken looks like too much. Layer after layer of seasoned meat, rolled up like a ring cake, with dressing oozing out everywhere. The tasting experience isn't as heavy as you might think. If you love meat, the turducken is a carnivorous gift. If you're the kind of person who eats burgers but a double cheeseburger is a little too much, the turducken ain't for you.

Mistich now offers close to 100 items on his menu, but none means more to him than a turducken. That's why he is tough on trainees. He requires new turducken makers to watch about 100 assemblies before they're allowed to make one themselves. If he hears too much chitchat, he morphs into a shushing librarian. He has seen many workers tap out on turduckens, including one legendary guy years ago who worked at the shop for a week then disappeared. "We found his apron out in the field behind the shop," he says. "Making turduckens isn't for everybody."

AS MISTICH LUGGED the turducken into an elevator and upstairs toward Madden's booth, he felt brutal butterflies start to fire up in his stomach. He couldn't believe this was really happening. DelGiorno assured him that Madden would love it, but he made no promises, and Mistich tried not to set any expectations. He kept looking at the kids and trying to remember they'd all be fine no matter what Madden thought of his cooking.

For the Madden meeting, Mistich assembled the dish the night before, then got up early to cook it. It took about an hour to get the turducken over to the stadium, past the hesitant security crew and into the waiting area outside Madden's booth.

DelGiorno went in to grab Madden, and Mistich and his family nervously waited. When he sensed they were coming out, Mistich peeled off the foil and stood with his dish unveiled, like a "Price Is Right" model showing off an expensive wristwatch.

DelGiorno emerged first, with the Hall of Fame coach trailing behind. DelGiorno peeled off to the side, and Madden stepped forward. "You should have seen John's face," DelGiorno says with a laugh. "He was in love."

It was as if Madden had just met a long-lost sibling. DelGiorno had warned Mistich beforehand that it would be a very brief visit, that he'd have to say hello and scoot so that Madden could continue prepping for the broadcast. But Madden was gleaming, peppering Mistich with questions about the turducken and commenting repeatedly about the smell. "It's delicious," he kept saying. Finally, somebody from Madden's team reminded him they had a game to broadcast.

Mistich asked Madden whether Leah could take a quick photo of them with the turducken, and two of his kids jumped in beside their dad. Then he shook hands with Madden, and the Mistich gang headed for the exits before Madden actually took a bite of the turducken.

DelGiorno walked the Mistich family to the elevator and promised to get up with Glenn later to let him know what Madden thought. They both were whispering about how excited Madden had seemed. DelGiorno said goodbye and went back in to find Madden and the whole Fox crew gathered around the turducken. It was an unwritten rule that Madden got to eat first, but the realization had hit that there were no utensils or napkins.

After a good 30 seconds of people scouring the booth and coming up empty, Madden couldn't take it anymore. He dug his hands into the turducken, ripping chunks off and eating them as the bemused crew laughed and asked him how it was. "I love it," Madden said between mouthfuls. "I absolutely love it."

Madden was dripping dressing and chunks of meat everywhere when Saints owner Tom Benson unexpectedly stuck his head into the booth. Madden knew Benson, but the two weren't close. Benson strode over to Madden and extended his hand, clearly unaware of the fork-manning that had been happening before he walked in.

Crew members' eyes bulged out of their heads as they saw Madden make the split-second decision whether to decline the handshake or go for it. Madden licked his three middle fingers, 1-2-3, and shook Benson's hand before Benson could pull it back. "That's the last time Tom Benson ever spoke to me," Madden said later.

Toward the end of the first half, Madden mentioned that he was still eating Thanksgiving leftovers but that he had been introduced a new dish. Now he wanted to announce it to about 10 million viewers. "The triducken!" he said.

As the broadcast headed toward a break for the two-minute warning, Madden was swooning so much over the entrée that Summerall jumped in and said, "Are you OK, John?"

When the camera returned, a producer was holding a turducken that looked like a pack of utensil-less wolves had worked it over for a couple of days. Madden towered above the pan, waving his enormous hands above, as he launched into the kind of breakdown he usually reserved for trap plays and fire zone blitzes. Madden's charm was always that the actual transcript of his analysis often read like a kindergarten teacher explaining how to spell cat to a class of 6-year-olds, but his exuberance and passion came through in his voice so that it never felt as if he was talking down to his audience. When something was important for John Madden to say, it felt important for you to hear.

"Here's my turducken," he said, correcting himself from earlier. "It's turkey -- you got the turkey on the outside. Then you stuff the turkey with the duck, then you stuff the duck with the chicken. 'Tur' for turkey. 'Duck' for duck. And '-en' for chicken. Then you just mix it all up. I've been eating it all day."

Madden turned around then to return to the game, and Summerall laughed because Madden wasn't done. "You can't beat that," he said. "That's good eating. That's a turducken. It's turkey, it's duck and it's chicken. All boneless. All stuffed into each other."

"It just sounds cruel to me," Summerall said with a laugh.

Right before the camera turned back to the game itself, a total clunker between the 2-10 Saints and 3-9 Rams, the camera caught Madden as he fired another chunk of turducken into his mouth.

Then the fork man's eating hand drifted toward his lips and ... boom, he licked his three middle fingers, 1-2-3.

DelGiorno would call Mistich the next day to tell him how much Madden loved the turducken, but by then the whole world knew.

"We weren't expecting what happened next," DelGiorno says. "Glenn's business -- his whole life, really -- would never be the same."

BY THE END of the game, a crew member or two had tried a bite of the turducken, to positive reviews. But most members of Team Madden had figured out right away to steer clear of the big man's new favorite meal. When the game was over, Madden took what was left back to his hotel with him and ate it the next day. He had found a food soulmate.

Mistich had watched the game in disbelief. He'd just heard his pride and joy dish on the air, from America's most prominent sports personality.

Mistich started to daydream about a huge influx of orders, but even so he underestimated the surge that actually came. That holiday season, Mistich went from 200 per year to 2,500 turduckens in a few weeks, and he and his small staff had to work around the clock to make those. When Madden named the turducken as the official food of the All-Madden team, and mentioned it on Fox's Super Bowl broadcast that year, Mistich had incredible momentum.

Requests continued to flood in through the beginning of 1998, so Mistich eventually had to hire full-time, year-round turducken makers as orders increased to 6,000 the next year. He mastered a freezing and mailing process to fill the hundreds of turducken orders to ship all over the United States -- including a few to Madden's California home.

Madden is 85 and doesn't do many interviews anymore. He loves the turducken to this day, his friends say, and the turducken loves him back. He included the turducken in every Thanksgiving game until his retirement in 2009. He often mentioned Mistich specifically, constantly juicing Mistich's business and local legend status. Eventually Merriam-Webster had no choice but to officially add the word to the dictionary.

Mistich gets wistful thinking about what Madden has meant to his business and his life. Since 1996, about 40% of all of Mistich's sales have been turduckens, most directly attributable to the glowing remarks of John Madden. Mistich recently sat for interviews for the upcoming Fox documentary on the coach, "All Madden," and can't wait to watch it when it debuts on Christmas Day.

Mistich tried a few times to tell Madden how thankful he was, and the Hall of Famer always waved him off. "You make an unbelievable product," Madden would tell him.

Sales were strong enough over the next decade that Mistich regularly thought about expanding. He wondered whether he could spread The Gourmet Butcher Block all over Louisiana, and then the South, and then maybe the whole country.

But every time his brain got grandiose, Mistich would look on the wall of his store, at the photo Leah took of him with his two kids flanked by DelGiorno and Madden. He'd gone to the Superdome that day as a struggling young business owner, trying to figure out how to be married with three kids while carrying the baggage of his own father's failings. "I try to be happy for what I have right in front of me, right now -- not what I could have," he says.

Mistich had made something amazing out of his life, eventually making peace with his dying father a few years ago. "My dad wasn't the reflective type," Mistich says. "So we had to just kind of leave it at, 'It is what it is.' But that helped me move on with my life. I didn't need him to tell me he was proud of me. I was proud of myself, and that was enough."

These days, Mistich, 59, is working his butt off with a more modest goal: He wants to retire someday soon and hand the keys to his son, Chazz, the little boy in the photo who came to Glenn after high school and said he wanted to learn everything he could about the meat business. Chazz is a 28-year-old dad now and works as the day-to-day manager at The Gourmet Butcher Block.

But even when Chazz takes over, there's one task Mistich thinks he might do from now until the end of time. He has mailed Madden a turducken every year since 1996. It's always special to box it up, put it in the freezer and send it to California.

Last Christmas, a package arrived at the Mistich house. It was a thank-you note from Madden and his wife, Virginia. Mistich couldn't believe it -- Madden was thanking him? "I think about John a lot, and I always get emotional," Mistich says. "I quit school in the 10th grade, and here I am today."

Mistich pauses for a second, then he laughs. He has never actually seen Madden eat a turducken, so he has to use his imagination of the legend devouring his dish on Thanksgiving. "John changed my life," Mistich says. "The least I can do is send him a turducken every year."

And just to be on the safe side, Mistich always includes a fork and some napkins.