TURDUCKEN, ANYONE?

Turkey has long been the nation's traditional holiday dinner. But regional tastes also take a place at the table: Turducken, mochi, boudin, crawfish stuffing, sushi, oysters, cheese balls and even suckling pigs vie for a spot. It just depends where you are, supermarket operators told SN.While some chains were heating up sales of pre-cooked turkey dinners, with all the trimmings, Rouses Supermarkets

Turkey has long been the nation's traditional holiday dinner. But regional tastes also take a place at the table: Turducken, mochi, boudin, crawfish stuffing, sushi, oysters, cheese balls and even suckling pigs vie for a spot. It just depends where you are, supermarket operators told SN.

While some chains were heating up sales of pre-cooked turkey dinners, with all the trimmings, Rouses Supermarkets began stuffing boneless turkeys with boneless ducks and boneless ducks with boneless chickens which were then stuffed with Rouses store-made green onion dressing. Yes, that's a duck and a chicken inside a turkey. The result? Turducken. It's roasted like a turkey and sliced like a jelly roll.

Rouses didn't invent turducken, but it was there at the beginning.

"I don't really know who started it, but it all happened about the same time. I wouldn't swear to it, but I believe we've been selling turducken as long as anybody has, seven or eight years," said Donald Rouse, president of the 12-unit Thibodeaux, La., independent.

And they move very well, Rouse said, adding that they sell for $3.99 a pound.

"We're the only supermarket that I know of that's selling turducken. Some specialty meat stores here do it, but other supermarkets probably think it's too labor-intensive. We just find it to be a great service to our customers," Rouse added.

"It's really a take-off on boneless turkeys which we'd been doing for years. We sell a lot of boneless chickens, too. Our people can de-bone the birds pretty quickly." It takes about 30 minutes to create a turducken, said another source at Rouses.

The retailer brings out turducken just before Thanksgiving and gives it a run through New Year's. The combo birds take their place among boneless chickens and boneless turkeys in a self-service meat case that's dedicated to items prepared in the stores' sausage kitchens, Rouse said. (The de-boned birds, home-made stuffing base and hogshead cheese, as well as a variety of Cajun sausages, are prepared in these kitchens). Sausage kitchen display cases range from 12 feet to 36 feet long, depending on the size of the store. As Christmas approaches, the boneless birds in the cases are bedecked with red and green bows.

"That's so customers can pick one up for a gift," Rouse said. While turduckens, at $39 or more each, move out of the case briskly, they're not the biggest sellers as the holiday season gets underway. Boneless stuffed chickens and boudin boats, both at $2.89 a pound, take the sales honors, Rouse said. Boudin is Cajun sausage made with pork, rice, seasonings, and chicken gizzards and livers.

Another top seller from now until Christmas is Rouses home-made stuffing base, Rouse said. The base is made of ground beef, pork, chicken gizzards and livers, shallots and seasonings. It's overwrapped and sold by the pound.

"It's the ingredients to make rice dressing. Everything's there but the rice, which the customer adds to it. They're just about the same ingredients as those in boudin. Our crawfish dressing is a big seller, too. It's made of rice, crawfish, seasoning and a roux. It tastes a little like ettouffe," Rouse said.

While registers at Rouses are ringing up turducken, and boudin and crawfish stuffing from the meat department, Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind., is getting a tremendous amount of holiday activity in its seafood department from sales of oysters.

Oysters in Indiana in the wintertime? Yes, and they're very profitable for Pay Less, officials said.

"We sell tons of oysters during the holidays. Big ones, little ones, in four different size containers," said Tim Kean, deli-bakery-seafood-floral merchandiser, at 8-unit Pay Less.

Kean pointed out that "tons" can be taken quite literally, too. During Thanksgiving week alone last year, the retailer sold more than 2,000 pounds of the creatures.

"They start selling well in October but they jump tremendously around Thanksgiving. They're a big number for us. We're talking several thousands, not just hundreds, of pounds. I think it has something to do with oyster dressing [for turkey stuffing]. There's a bowl of oyster dressing on every holiday table here. People prize their recipes and pass them down from generation to generation."

The region is also big on oyster fries, Kean said.

"[They're] like catfish fries in the South, but here it's oysters. Service organizations have oyster fries in the fall and families traditionally get together, too, for oyster fries," he said.

It's particularly cost-effective for Pay Less to obtain oysters during the holiday season because they're such a volume seller.

"What makes the difference is that now, during this time of year, we buy so many of them, we're able to bring them in by truck from Seattle, and from the East Coast," said Kean.

They're transported fresh, pre-packed in gallons, half gallons, 16-oz. containers and 8-oz. containers. Tiered-case displays dedicated to oysters at Pay Less stores run at least 6 to 8 feet long.

While the company carries fresh oysters most of the year, they fly them in at times when demand isn't so high.

"Fall and winter is the big time. The animal itself has different characteristics about its meat in the cold weather versus the warm weather. I guess a real connoisseur would tell you oysters taste better in the cold weather months," Kean said, in reference to the old adage never to eat oysters during a month that lacks the letter "R."

Of five sizes of oyster the company offers, a very small West Coast variety is one of the most popular.

"There's a culinary consideration there. If you're making turkey dressing, you'd probably want the small ones. An oyster half the size of your fist would require an awful lot of cutting up, but the small ones can be used whole in the dressing."

Pay Less also does a good holiday business with cheese balls and dips it manufactures, Kean pointed out.

"They skyrocket this time of year so we focus on them. We devote a lot of manufacturing space in our central kitchen to them."

While supermarkets from Connecticut to Hawaii offer pre-cooked turkey dinners these days, they don't count on them to make a lot of money. "They're more of a convenience for our customers," said one operator.

In Hawaii, turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas is as much a staple as it is in the rest of the U.S., but sushi and poke (pronounced poh-key), which is cubes of marinated raw fish, also have a regular spot on the holiday table.

"Sales of our party trays with sushi and poke go way up this time of year," said Sheryl Toda, community relations manager at 27-unit Foodland Supermarkets, Honolulu, Hawaii.

But right after Christmas, mochi (pronounced moh-chee) hits the display case. Mochi is made with cooked rice pounded and mixed with water. It has a sticky, glutenous texture, Toda said.

"People here eat the plain mochi for New Year's. It's a Japanese tradition. But earlier in the holiday season, they purchase a different type mochi, a sweetened one, in our bakeries."

New Year's is a big deal in Hawaii and probably will be an even bigger one this year as we enter a new century, and millennium. Fireworks and mochi-eating are always part of the New Year's celebration in Hawaii, Toda said.

Across the country, in Danbury, Conn., where one expects turkey and butternut squash to dominate the holiday menu, it does. But at a new-format store, just opened there by Grand Union, Wayne, N.J., at least one customer picked up a roast suckling pig for Thanksgiving dinner.

It was a custom order, said meat manager Peter Cavalli, who prides himself on giving customers what they want. He said his taking the order without hesitation has brought that customer -- a new one -- back as a regular.

"Since she placed the order for the roast pig, she's been back to buy prime beef, like prime rib roasts, from us several times," Cavalli said.

The hallmark of the newly opened Grand Union store, the 217-unit chain's first GU Fresh Market format store, is service [see "GU Fresh Market Format Shows Chain's New Attitude," SN, 11/29/99]. Cavalli and the store's executive chef, John Vlamis, got a chance to prove that in a big way with the pig order.

Vlamis cooked the 14-pound pig on the rotisserie in the store's deli department the day before Thanksgiving, and then plattered it up with an apple in its mouth and a ruffle of fresh greens around it.