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Origin Of The “Cajun” Deep Fried Turkey

Author: Anthony Robert

While preparing for this year’s Thanksgiving fest, where I’ll be serving delicious , 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 degreeF 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.

Send me your thoughts

Leave your comments, I would love to learn more about the origins of deep fried turkey, where it came from and what made it so popular.

6 Comments For This Post

  1. Ellen Says:

    I only know my origins-my brother from Altanta told me about doing it 7 years ago and now I am hooked. Tell your readers they can order Rice Oil from http://www.californiariceoil.com and they will not be disappointed. Rice Oil has a smoke point of 490 and the taste is clean and light!

  2. Burton Haynes Says:

    Small deep fryers are a great kitchen gadget to have. They are small and can create fast snacks. Here is one of my favorite sites. Small Deep Fryers

  3. Darrin Dhar Says:

    Small deep fryers are a great kitchen appliance to have. They are small and can create fast snacks. Here is one of my favorite websites. Small Deep Fryers

  4. Gregg Polidoro Says:

    Small deep fryers are a great kitchen gadget to have. They are compact and can make fast treats. Here is one of my favorite sites.

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  6. Jack Taylor Says:

    The idea of saying that deep fried turkey to be Southern is absolutely ABSURD! Any person with any age over 30 can attest that the deep fried turkey craze can’t be a southern tradition. I have many reasons to validate this, but I’ll list a few to show how it’s a fabricated myth.

    1.) the process of cooking a deep fried turkey is expensive and preparation is dangerous and uses a propane tank and a burner, – something which wasn’t invented until the 1960s.

    2.) Most Southernors in times past would be more apt to cook a ham instead of a mass marketed turkey for a Thanksgiving meal. While the turky is now a mainstay of most American Thanksgivings, its origins are in the NORTH and true to the Yankee version of the first Thanksgiving Myth.

    3.) I am the son of sharecropper children from Mississippi. I grew up in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia. I NEVER saw a deep fried turkey or even heard of it until the 1990s.

    4.) How many Southern grandmothers kept a huge syringe (that would be more useful for injecting elephants) in their kitchen drawer to cook a deep fried Turkey!? Come on folks, this article is hoppycock!

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