"Every year there's a trend, and this year it's spatchcocking, baby." So declares Rick Rodgers, author of the Thanksgiving 101 cookbook at the beginning of our interview.
Rodgers knows Thanksgiving. Referred to as "the Thanksgiving expert," his seasonal accolades are many: he's written several cookbooks, he teaches Thanksgiving cooking classes, and he espouses sage wisdom on things like, well, sage. His knowledge is gleaned from cooking more than 25 Thanksgiving dinners for 25 to 30 people. Whoa.
(And spatchcocking? Well, aside from its silly name, it's just the process of cutting out the backbone of a turkey and laying it flat before roasting, giving the bird a more even cook and a consistently crisp skin. Now you know.)
But we're not here to giggle over the word spatchcocking. We're here to discuss a seriously enduring Thanksgiving cooking trend, and certainly the one that's sparked the most emergency room trips and YouTube fail videos. Plus, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend made one in recent years, so it has to be trendy.
We're talking deep-fried turkey. No, this isn't a Guy Fieri fever dream.
The national popularization of deep-fried turkey was "part of the Cajun cooking craze that started in the late '70s," says Rodgers. He says that butane cookers were widely sold in Louisiana as a way to cook crawfish boils en mass outdoors at churches and other outdoor functions. People realized that you could replace water with oil and get a crisp, quick cook, and soon the regional trend evolved into whole-turkey frying.
According to Serious Eats, the turning point in popularizing the specialty, which people claimed was moister than its roasted counterpart, came in December 1982 when United Press International's Gary Taylor reported from a small town in southwest Louisiana that "a few daring cooks have developed a new way to prepare holiday turkey. They deep fry it — whole."
From there, a flurry of articles and columns were written about the new process. In 1986, celebrity chef Justin Wilson deep-fried a whole turkey on his PBS show, Louisiana Cookin', exposing the nation to the newfangled spin on the centerpiece of America's most traditional meal, according to Serious Eats. "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" and were given a demo. Let's just say minds were blown.
Fast forward to today, and the trend endures both on Thanksgiving dinner tables and within the pop-culture zeitgeist.
Here are some deep-fried American milestones:
- Martha Stewart Living's November 1996 feature
- The New York Times' 1997 ode to the process.
- Acceptance by the National Turkey Federation.
- William Shatner's 2011 "Eat, Fry, Love" State Farm ad. This William Shatner deep-fried turkey remix song that encapsulates everything good about the Internet.
- Paula Deen's endorsement. Pat and Gina Neely's endorsement. Alton Brown's endorsement. Emeril Lagasse's endorsement. Et cetera.
- This "Ultimate Deep Fried Turkey Fails Compilation." It's perfect.
Need we say more? Spatchcocking.