While preparing for this year's Thanksgiving fest where I'll be serving delicious Deep Fried turkey, I became interested in the origin of the succulent treat.
What is deep fried turkey?
"Frying whole turkeys is sort of the Southern version of making fondue. You have a lot of your friends over, you poke around in a pot of hot oil with some sticks, and then you pull out your dinner. Justin Wilson, of Cajun fame, recalls first seeing a turkey fry in Louisiana in the 1930s."---Something Different: Deep-Fried Turkey, Beverly Bundy, St. Louis Dispatch, November 24, 1997 (Food p. 4)
What is a deep fried turkey you ask? Injected with marinade and cooked in 350 degree F peanut or other vegetable oil, deep-fried turkey is anything but greasy. The deep-frying process seals in the juices creating flavorful meat and tasty golden brown skin. Incredibly juicy on the interior and wonderfully crispy on the exterior, the explosion of flavor and contrasting textures has made it a favorite for barbecues, block parties, tailgating, holiday feasts and informal wedding receptions.
It seems I first heard about deep frying turkey about 15 years ago, then suddenly everyone and their brother was doing it. So what sparked this sudden phenomenon?
Roots in the Southern United States
Deep frying turkey has it's origins in the Southern United States, namely Louisiana. I have heard there are a few restaurants in Southern Louisiana that became popular by injecting whole birds with a creole style marinade then dropping them in hot peanut oil. There had to be something bigger though to get the word out, Regional restaurants just do not have the reach to change a deep rooted tradition such as oven baked turkey.
I thought maybe it was the new accessibility of large deep fryers such as the original Kamp Kooker marketed by Home Depot, or was it a favorite of celebrity chefs such as Emeril?
Why is it called Cajun if it's not?
I started doing a little research on the internet, and although I only spent a few hours, it seems no exact year, restaurant, or person is connected to this particular style of cooking turkey. There is evidence that fried turkeys were cooked outdoors for large popular events (family reunions, charity dinners, church suppers, etc.) in the early years of the twentieth century.
Commonly thought of as a cajun tradition, I could find no direct ties to the acadien-cajun culture. In fact I found food historians generally agree that fried turkeys trace their roots to Bayou (Louisiana/Texas) creole cuisine. Recipes then migrated from Louisiana/Texas to Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia (peanut oil), and Washington D.C. before it forked northward toward Seattle and Vancouver.
The power of Martha Stewart
So here seems to be the magic bullet. I did find where Martha Stewart is given credit for taking the recipe to mainstream America in the early 90's:
"Fried turkey has been all the rage at least for the last decade in New Orleans, and long before that it was a tradition in the bayou and throughout the South. Like many a vainglorious culinary mania before it, the national renown of fried turkeys can be traced directly to Martha Stewart, who plucked them from regional obscurity and put them in her magazine in 1996. "---It's Treacherous, But Oh So Tasty; Fried-Turkey Fans Take the Risk, Annie Gowen, Washington Post, November 22, 2001 (p. B1)
If this is the case, it seems Martha may have created an entire industry. A typical setup including all the turkey fryer accessories can easily run $200-$300. I would say those folks and the peanut oil folks owe Martha a big thanks.