GLENN MISTICH TOOK slow, tiny steps toward the Superdome entrance. His hands were shaking inside the gloves he wore to carry the dish. His wife and three children were with him.
Bob DelGiorno was walking with his friend to the Rams-Saints game. DelGiorno had become friendly with John Madden after doing on-air Saints game days for a long time, and he had told the former coach about a delicious vegetarian's nightmare that had become well-known in the New Orleans area. It was a duck stuffed inside a chicken and a turkey with cornbread and sausage dressings.
What is the dish's name? The turducken.
Madden's friends call him a "fork man" because he can crush food. Madden was all-in after DelGiorno told him the turducken was real. Mistich and his family walked into the Superdome that day.
Madden was at the peak of his powers, but Mistich wasn't a sports fan. He had become the voice of football, earning more per year than any player, and he had also become a video game visionary and an A-list product endorser. If Jake from State Farm had been around in 1996, he would have talked insurance rates with Madden instead of Patrick Mahomes.
It's impossible to overstate the impact food had on Madden's rise. Madden's everyman appeal came through via food more than anywhere else, as he and Pat Summerall did 22 straight Thanksgiving broadcasts starting in 1981. Reggie White won the first Turkey Leg Award from Madden in 1989. He gave one to Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and then made a comment that he wished he had a six-legged turkey so the Cowboys linemen could get in on the action.
Joe Pat Fieseler is a barbecue owner in Texas. Madden started giving out six-legged turkeys the next year. When he announced his All-Madden team at the end of the season, Madden made sure that food was a theme of the show, so he thought the perfect all-star awards should be meat and gravy, not trophies. He was America's fork man.
The days before the 1996 game, Mistich went through the turducken process with his own hands. It had to be perfect.
The turducken was cooked on the day of the game by Mistich, who had spent the previous few days deboning all three birds. He met DelGiorno outside the stadium. Mistich's stomach felt like a turducken as he shuffled to the gate.
The Gourmet Butcher Block sold around 200 turduckens per year off a menu of 25 items. He smiled as he saw how excited his kids were to meet John Madden. Seeing them like that gave him a feeling of calm, even if Madden didn't like them.
A security guard shook his head when DelGiorno showed his placard and vouched for the Mistich crew, even though they didn't have credentials.
He asked if that was food.
"Yes," Mistich said.
The guard said there was no outside food.
DelGiorno tried to get in. I've been broadcasting these games for a long time, and this is for John Madden.
The guard was adamant. "No exceptions."
They thought maybe they'd be eating this turducken themselves when Mistich looked resigned.
DelGiorno asked the security guard to call his boss. The guard relented after DelGiorno was persuasive and persistent. The security guard apologized as he waved them through.
The building had been entered by a turducken.
Glenn Mistich was brought to introduce John Madden to the turducken by New Orleans radio personality Bob DelGiorno.
The turducken's origin story is similar to that of the turducken itself, with a little bit of information and controversy.
Everyone can agree on the basics. Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme patented the word and recipe in 1986, but Louisiana brothers Junior and Sammy Hebert disagree. They invented the meat product after a customer asked if they could put a chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey. The turducken deserves a lot of credit for it.
The Hebert meat shops where Mistich got a job in the early 1990s made turduckens. The dish had a cult following in Louisiana but was not well-known outside the state. On that day in 1996, Mistich played an important role in launching the turducken into the national consciousness.
He had a plan to build up a nice business and give it to his kids someday. Mistich's father was abusive to him when he was a child. Mistich dropped out of high school to pursue a career in fishing, hoping to catch the attention of his father. The relationship deteriorated so much that Mistich quit fishing and went to work with her and her brother at his shop.
Nean, Mistich's grandfather, was a meat man who traveled up and down the Mississippi River in a wooden carriage. Nean, a first-generation Croatian immigrant, would sell as much as he could for a few hours, then give the rest away for free on his way home for the night. When he fell in love with working at the butcher shop, he felt a connection to his grandfather, but maybe there wasn't much of a connection between him and his dad.
Mistich has always been good at making turducken from the first day he worked at the butcher shop. He is a contradiction when it comes to birds. On the other hand, he is an avid meat eater and owns a butcher shop. He's an avid hunter who believes in killing only what you plan to eat. Before he gets to work on a turducken, he often says a thankful prayer to the chicken, duck and turkey.
It's hard work. The backroom where the turduckens are assembled is where Mistich is tough on his turducken crew. He doesn't want a bird to go to waste. He encourages people to concentrate on the birds and not talk.
Mistich doesn't do turduckens one at a time. He makes them in large lots of up to 150. He and his crew deboned the birds. They'll debone 150 chickens and put them in giant buckets that will be used in industrial-sized fridges. Then 150 turkeys. A chicken in 45 seconds, a duck in two minutes, and a turkey in two minutes are all that the butcher shop can do.
The other crew is cooking and mixing the dressings. One has a cornbread base and the other is sausage-based. For 150 turduckens, they'll brew a huge tub of dressing and cook it on the stove for 10 hours. After the day is over, they take the pots off the stove and put them in the fridge.
Assembly time is on Day 2. The dishes are usually put together by Mistich. A badly put together turducken or a bird falling on the floor are not things that bother him. It's a regular occurrence for the whole gang to walk around at the end of the day wondering how they're missing a duck or chicken. Mistich says that once in a while someone will mess up the count. You're talking about 450 birds, so that's bound to happen.
The turkey is on the table. A thin layer of sausage dressing is smoothed out after he puts down a glob of it. Next, he puts out the duck, followed by a layer of sausage dressing, and finally the chicken and cornbread dressing.
It is the hardest part. The turducken looks like a cake of meat and dressing. Mistich was able to swallow everything inside the turkey in a single motion. The turkey needs 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 uses about 3 feet of thread per turducken to tie the turkey together.
He sells about 5,000 turduckens a year, half in the shop and half through shipping. You can get a mail-order bird within a week for $200. Turducken are about 17 pounds and feed 30 or so people.
Each one has to thaw in the fridge for 4-5 days, then roast for four hours at 350 degrees. The smell from the oven is like a warm meat blanket across the house, it's the smell of Thanksgiving turkey. The meat juices and dressing crackle as the three birds are in the oven. Even after slicing, the birds hold together even after removing the thread from the oven.
A cooked turducken looks too much. Dressing oozing out everywhere, rolled up like a ring cake, with seasoned meat. You might think that the tasting experience is heavy. The turducken is a great gift if you love meat. If you're the kind of person who eats a double cheeseburger but doesn't like it too much, the turducken isn't for you.
There are close to 100 items on Mistich's menu, but none means more to him than a turducken. That's why he's tough on them. He requires new turducken makers to watch 100 assembly before they can make their own. He becomes a shushing librarian if he hears too much chatter. He has seen a lot of workers tap out on turduckens, including one guy who disappeared after working for a week. He says that the apron was found in the field behind the shop. Making turduckens isn't for everyone.
Madden established himself as a Thanksgiving Day staple, as shown in 1999 when, from left, Detroit Lions Greg Hill, Johnnie Morton, and Robert Porcher tasted a six-legged turkey the broadcast would award after games on the holiday.
He felt a lot of butterflies as he guided the turducken into an elevator and upstairs to Madden's booth. He couldn't believe it was happening. DelGiorno told him that Madden would love it, but he didn't make any promises. He was trying to remember that the kids would be fine no matter what Madden thought of his cooking.
Mistich got up early to cook the dish for the Madden meeting. It took about an hour to get the turducken to the stadium, past the security crew and into the waiting area outside Madden's booth.
DelGiorno went in to grab Madden. When he knew 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.
The Hall of Fame coach was behind DelGiorno. Madden stepped forward as DelGiorno peeled off to the side. "You should have seen John's face," DelGiorno said with a laugh. He was in love.
It was as if Madden had met a sibling. DelGiorno had warned Mistich that he would have to say hello and leave so that Madden could continue preparing for the broadcast. Madden was glowing, peppering Mistich with questions about the smell and turducken. He kept saying it was delicious. Someone from Madden's team told him they had a game to broadcast.
Madden asked Mistich if he could take a photo of them with the turducken, and two of his kids jumped in with him. The Mistich gang headed for the exits after he shook hands with Madden.
DelGiorno promised to let Glenn know what Madden thought after walking the Mistich family to the elevator. They were whispering about how excited Madden was. Madden and the whole Fox crew were gathered around the turducken after DelGiorno said goodbye. It was an old rule that Madden had to eat first, but there were no napkins or utensils.
Madden couldn't take it anymore after a good 30 seconds of people looking at the booth. The crew laughed and asked him how it was, as he dug his hands into the turducken and ripped chunks off. Madden said between mouthfuls that he loved it. "I absolutely love it."
Madden was dripping dressing and chunks of meat all over the place when Saints owner Tom Benson unexpectedly stuck his head into the booth. Madden and Benson were not close. The fork-manning that had been happening before he walked in was not apparent to him.
Madden made a split second decision whether to decline the handshake or go for it, as the crew members' eyes bulged out of their heads. Madden licked his fingers and shook the hand of the other. Madden said that the last time he talked to Tom was that day.
Madden mentioned at the end of the first half that he was still eating Thanksgiving leftovers, but that he had introduced a new dish. He wanted to announce it to 10 million people. He said, "The triducken!"
Madden was so enamored with the entree that Summerall jumped in and said, "Are you OK, John?" as the broadcast headed toward a break.
A producer was holding a turducken that looked like a pack of wolves and was working on it 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 transcript of his analysis would 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. It was important for John Madden to say something.
He said, "Here's my turducken." You have the turkey on the outside. You put the turkey with the duck and the chicken together. 'Tur' is for turkey. For duck, 'duck'. For chicken. You mix it all up. I've been eating it all day.
Summerall laughed because Madden wasn't done. "You can't beat that," he said. That's good food. That is a turducken. It's turkey, duck and chicken. All bones. All stuffed together.
Summerall said it sounded cruel.
The camera caught Madden as he fired another chunk of turducken into his mouth before the game was over.
The fork man licked his middle fingers after his eating hand moved toward his lips.
The world knew how much Madden loved the turducken after DelGiorno called Mistich.
"We weren't expecting what happened next," DelGiorno says. Glenn's business would never be the same.
Thanks to Madden's enthusiastic support, Mistich has become well-known for his turducken, a dish for which he has become well-known.
A crew member or two had tried a bite of the turducken and it was positive feedback. Team Madden had already decided to steer clear of the big man's new favorite meal. Madden ate what was left in his hotel room after the game. He found a food companion.
Mistich was in disbelief after watching the game. He heard his pride and joy from America's most prominent sports personality.
He underestimated the surge that actually came when he daydreamed about a huge influx of orders. In a few weeks, Mistich and his small staff had to work around the clock to make 2,500 turduckens, which was a huge increase. The turducken was named the official food of the All-Madden team by Madden and was mentioned in the Super Bowl broadcast.
Mistich had to hire full-time, year-round turducken makers as orders increased to 6,000 the next year, because requests continued to flood in through the beginning of 1998. He was able to fill hundreds of turducken orders to ship all over the United States, including a few to Madden's California home.
Madden doesn't do many interviews anymore. His friends say that he loves the turducken and he loves him back. The turducken was included in every Thanksgiving game until his retirement. He often talked about Mistich's business and local legend status. The word was added to the dictionary by Merriam-Webster.
Mistich gets nostalgic about what Madden has meant to him. John Madden's glowing remarks have been the main reason why 40% of Mistich's sales have been turduckens. The upcoming Fox documentary on the coach, "All Madden," will premiere on Christmas Day, and Mistich can't wait to watch it.
Madden was always waved off by the Hall of Famer when Mistich tried to tell him how thankful he was. Madden told him that he made an unbelievable product.
Over the next decade, Mistich thought about expanding. He wondered if he could spread The Gourmet Butcher Block all over the country.
Every time Mistich's brain got bigger, he would look at the wall of his store and see the photo that was taken of him with his two kids. He went 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 failures. He says he tries to be happy for what he has right now, not what he could have.
After making peace with his dying father, Mistich made something amazing out of his life. Mistich says that his dad wasn't reflective. We had to leave it at that. I was able to 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 all.
Mistich wants to retire soon and give the keys to his son, who came to Glenn after high school, because he wanted to learn everything he could. The Gourmet Butcher Block has a day-to-day manager who is a father.
Even though Chazz will take over, Mistich thinks he might do one task until the end of time. Madden has been mailed a turducken every year since 1996. It's special to put it in the freezer and send it to California.
A package arrived at the house. Madden and his wife wrote a thank-you note. Madden was thanking Mistich, but he couldn't believe it. Mistich says that he gets emotional when he thinks about John. I quit school in the 10th grade.
He laughs after pausing for a second. Madden has never eaten a turducken, so he has to use his imagination to imagine the legend consuming his dish on Thanksgiving. Mistich says that John changed his life. I can't do much but send him a turducken every year.
Mistich always has a fork and some napkins.