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There's a rather widespread perception that here in the South we'll eat just about anything so long as it's dipped in batter and deep fried. Just consider the ubiquity of the expression "Southern Fried," which is applied to everything from chicken to catfish to the decidedly non-comestible (television; football). And to some, deep fried turkey falls squarely into this oily vortex, where it's assumed to be a primarily Southern dish. Even though these days fried turkey is as broadly American as fried McDonald's apple pies.
The Southern = fried equation causes a lot of heartburn for many Southern food lovers, who point to the abundance of vegetables, pickles, corn, and rice in the region's larder, and our predilection for roasting and barbecuing things, too. In truth, fried turkey is as much Southern as it is Iowa state fair. The South claims no monopoly on frying turkey on Thanksgiving.
But the tradition did start there, in the Cajun country of Louisiana, and it's a recent invention, too, only a few decades old.
From Crawfish Cookers to Turkey Fryers
The innovation of deep frying whole turkeys in hot lard would never have come about without butane gas-fire cookers. Back in the 1940s, butane (and, to a lesser degree, propane) were used to fuel camp stoves and recreational vehicle ranges, which at the time were commonly called "house trailers."
Down in Louisiana, some enterprising Cajuns figured that those same fuels could be adapted to cook one of their favorite local delicacies: boiled crawfish. Around 1970, portable butane cookers started being advertised widely in the state's newspapers as "portable crawfish cookers" or "crawfish boiler rigs." These rigs consisted of a gas burner mounted in a large metal stand sturdy enough to hold a giant aluminum cooking pot, and they were fueled by a hose connected to a portable butane tank.
In 1973, the State Times Advocate of Baton Rouge ran an article on the arrival of crawfish season that reported that the butane tank and burner system had become the favorite equipment for crawfish boils because "the cook can get high heat quickly, control it just as quickly, and move the outfit around easily."
Those same cooks soon realized that water wasn't the only liquid they could heat with the burners. In addition to the big aluminum pot he used for cooking crawfish, the State Times Advocate noted, Joseph G. Kowalzcuk "has contrived another special pot to be used on the butane burner system for frying fish and chicken. An empty butane tank was cut in half and handles welded to each site to make an extra heavy aluminum container for frying."
Manufacturers and retailers were quick to embrace this new application for their products, and within a few years butane burner stands were routinely advertised in Louisiana papers as both crawfish boilers and fish fryers.
It was only a matter of time before someone decided that if such a fryer was good for chicken then it would probably do well with other poultry. In December 1982, Gary Taylor, a United Press International reporter, filed a dispatch from Church Point, a small town of about 4,500 people in southwest Louisiana. "A few daring cooks," he reported, "have developed a new way to prepare holiday turkey. They deep fry it—whole."
The cooks first created a liquified blend of Italian dressing, mustard, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and garlic salt and injected it into the turkey two days in advance of the frying. Their cooking pot was "a ten-gallon one generally used to boil crawfish," heated over a burner stand with a five-gallon butane tank, and they fried the turkey in pure lard.
"Fried turkey is apparently new," Taylor noted. The event he attended was hosted by Ronnie Robert and Alex Thibodeaux of Baton Rouge, who said they got the idea about a year before. Workers from the Ethyl Corp., a Baton Rouge-based chemical company, had come to Thibodeaux, who rendered lard as a side business, wanting to buy a large quantity so they could deep fry a turkey.
The Migrating Bird
Taylor's article got a lot of attention. In October 1983, the State Times Advocate reported, "In South Louisiana a new tradition is heating up quickly...word has spread through UPI writer Gary Taylor's article on Cajun Deep-Fried Turkey of a sure fire way to cook turkey to a tender, moist richness without the two major drawbacks of the holiday oven—too long and too dry." Most cooks used crawfish or gumbo pots and fashioned a harness out of nylon rope to lower the bird into boiling lard or peanut oil.
In 1986, Marcelle Bienvenu published a fried turkey recipe in her New Orleans Times-Picayune "Cooking Creole" column, and Justin Wilson cooked a deep-fried turkey on his popular Louisiana Cookin' television show, which aired across the country on PBS. But the real breakout moment for deep fried turkey seems to have occurred in October 1987, when the members of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association descended upon New Orleans for their annual meeting.
The attendees were treated to a cooking demonstration by Jim Chehardy, the executive manager of the French Quarter Landmark Hotel. Chehardy, who said he had been frying turkeys since 1982, demonstrated the technique with several whole birds and a couple of turkey breasts. After they returned home, many of the writers penned bemused pieces describing the experience.
In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for instance, food editor Iris Balin devoted the front page of the Wednesday food section to Cajun cuisine, including an article headlined "Cajun Turkey's Fat is in the Fire," which noted, "Cajun fried turkey? It's for real down there, but we reprint the recipe strictly for curiosity's sake."
Not everyone was amused. Teresa J. Farney, the Director of Consumer Affairs for the National Turkey Federation in Reston, Virginia, fired off a dramatic press release with the headline "Deep-Fried Turkey!!! The Ultimate Insult to Wholesome Food." The copy decried the danger posed by gallons of boiling-hot oil, the risk of undercooking the meat, and the fact that a turkey prepared in such a way had 75% more fat than roasted, skinless turkey breast. The press release equated eating fried turkey to "staring into a loaded double-barrel shotgun. One barrel is a cardiologist's nightmare, the other...is a microbiologist's worst dream come true."
But the Federation's metaphors proved little match for the sizzling appeal of a whole deep fried turkey. The preparation grew in popularity, particularly in the South, through the early 1990s. Martha Stewart Living featured deep fried turkey in the November 1996 issue, and for her television show Stewart visited film producer Joel Silver's Auldbrass Plantation in Beaufort County, South Carolina, where she and the plantation's chef fried a turkey in a bubbling vat of peanut oil.
By 1997, the New York Times was reporting, "Deep-fried turkey, a specialty in areas of the South—especially Louisiana's Cajun country—is slowly making its way north." Turkey frying equipment, once a niche product that had to be mail ordered, started being stocked on retail shelves alongside the charcoal grills. Innovations like perforated inner baskets did away with the need for improvised rope or wire harnesses, and these days you can even buy oil-less "fryers" that use infrared heat to simulate the effect without requiring gallons of superheated oil.
A New American Tradition
Not surprisingly, considering the sheer number of birds that are currently deep fried nationwide on Thanksgiving Day, the National Turkey Federation has changed its tune. It now provides detailed instructions and six deep fried turkey recipes on its website. What it once pilloried as "The Ultimate Insult to Wholesome Food" it now promotes as "a perfect twist for barbecues, block parties and holiday feasts."
Today, fierce debate rages on the internet (here included) over just how moist and tender a fried turkey really is compared to a properly oven-roasted bird. Viral videos of fiery turkey frying disasters have become something of a holiday tradition, too. But the practice doesn't seem like it's going to fade out anytime soon.
If, by and large, the traditional staples of the Thanksgiving dinner were defined and promulgated by New Englanders, we in the South (and, in particular, the folks in Louisiana) can point, perhaps with pride or perhaps with a bit of sheepishness, to our region's most influential contribution to the national holiday tradition. You're welcome, America.