Last year I wrote about Thanksgiving traditions and my since abandoned tradition of cooking the Thanksgiving turkey on the grill that began back in 1985 while living in San Diego. Little did I know at the time that a few years later I would be in Wisconsin — which normally has snow on the ground this time of year.
This year I thought I would share the story of my ill-conceived attempt at deep-frying a turkey and the cautionary tale of why some jobs should just be left to the professionals.
About 10 years ago (I have really tried to forget the entire experience, so forgive me for not remembering the exact date), deep fried turkey was all the rage for Thanksgiving.
It was featured on all the cooking shows and you couldn’t walk down the aisle of H-E-B or Walmart without seeing a display for a deep fried turkey cooker with all the utensils.
Being an average, red-blooded American man, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?”
So, I tossed a turkey fryer kit and about 10 gallons of vegetable oil in the buggy and decided we would start a new Thanksgiving tradition.
Let me begin the story by saying there are times you really should read the instructions — especially when it involves boiling oil and an open flame.
But, being an average, red-blooded American man, I did what any average, red-blooded American man would do. I hooked the propane tank up to the turkey fryer, filled the pot with oil and cranked it up just as high as the knob would go.
While I waited for the oil to heat up, I went into the kitchen and covered the turkey with my special Cajun seasonings that I made up myself based on what I could remember from watching Emeril Lagasse’s show on the Food Network. Once I had that bad boy covered with enough seasoning to make the dog break out into a sneezing fit, I put it on a tray and headed back out to the patio.
That’s when things got a little bit crazy.
I did use a thermometer to make sure the oil in the pot was at the proper temperature for frying a turkey, which by the way is 350 degrees and the bird should cook in the fryer 3-1/2 minutes for every pound. Calculating the math in my head, I looked at my watch and figured I had about 40 minutes before I had to pull it out — plenty of time to finish frying up a batch of homemade potato chips while the bird “rested” before it was time to carve.
The details of what happened next are still kind of fuzzy.
Had I read the instructions, I would have known to put the bird in the pot — THEN FILL THE POT WITH OIL, making sure the oil is 2 inches below the top of the pot, REMOVING THE BIRD BEFORE HEATING THE OIL.
But I didn’t. I just guestimated the displacement of the turkey in figuring out how much oil to use.
Turns out I was off by a smidgeon in my measurements.
I will say that turkey fryers aren’t very forgiving when it comes to operational procedures.
I dropped the bird in the pot of hot oil.
Hot oil shot up into the air; then poured down the side of the pot into the open flame of the propane burner.
There was a loud SWOOOSH.
Followed by a lot of popping noise as the moisture from the turkey hit the oil.
And then everything within 10 feet of the turkey fryer erupted in flames.
That’s about the time the dog jumped the fence and took off running through the neighborhood.
Relying on the firefighting training I received in the Navy, I had to make a split-second decision of whether to go after the dog or try and put out the fire before it became what they call in the Navy a “mass conflagration,” which at that point looked exactly like the training videos they showed us in the Navy of what one looked like.
In that split second I realized I was too mad to go chase the dog. I remembered in my Navy training the first thing I needed to do was to try and remove the biggest source of the fire. So I put on my turkey-frying glove that came with the kit and turned the knob on the propane tank, successfully shutting off all the flames going to the heating unit.
With the smell of smoldering arm hair lingering in the air, I then started doing the Texas Two Step trying to save what was left of the lawn in the backyard.
About that time I turned around and noticed the pot with the turkey was still enveloped in flames.
You wouldn’t think that vegetable oil would burn so long. For crying out loud, it’s made out of vegetables.
With no arm hair left to sacrifice, all I could do was just let the pot fire burn itself out while I tended to the other hotspots that were popping up around the lawn.
I heard my neighbor George call out from next door asking if I needed help.
“No thanks, George. I got it,” I yelled back, noticing he was shaking his head and laughing as he walked away.
About 40 minutes later, my youngest son walks out the back door asking if the bird is ready.
“Dad, what happened?!?” he asked, noticing the patio and lawn totally chared.
I shook my head and gave him the only response any red-blooded American man would come up with at a time like that.
“Don’t tell your mom,” I snapped back. “And go look for the dog.”
Needless to say, that was the last time I’ve ever been asked — or allowed — to take part in the preparation of the Thanksgiving turkey.
I do use the pot. I keep it as a badge of honor, its exterior still covered in black soot that won’t scrub off. Only now I use it to cook a mean batch of turkey and rice soup. On the stove, of course. And only after Thanksgiving.