Thursday, July 30, 2009
This article first appeared in the New York Times Blog
Deep-fried turkey has been hailed as the solution to a perennial problem of Thanksgiving: a dried-out roast turkey.
Deep-fried turkey is juicy and quick. Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart have endorsed it. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition with a kick. It’s also an incredible fire hazard.
The turkey fryers — which combine gallons of boiling oil, open propane gas fires and often unstable frames — can easily become flame throwers, fire safety experts say.
Because of the number of fires and burns, national fire safety groups essentially urge people not to fry turkeys. The city’s Fire Department has issued a warning about turkey fryers. And Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit group that gives safety certifications for everything from hair dryers to space heaters, has refused to put its UL saftey mark on any deep turkey fryer.
“There are no UL listed turkey fryers because the turkey fryers on the market do not have the level of safety features we deem necessary,” said John Drengenberg, a spokesman for UL.
Most turkey fryers are essentially a large pot over sitting on a frame over an open propane flame, he explained. Most don’t have thermostat controls, and there are situations when the hot oil can spill over into the fire. “Then you’ve got something like a vertical flame thrower in your hands,” he said.
To highlight the hazards, UL has made a video starring Mr. Drengenberg, who was leery when the cameraman told him to stand closer to the deep fryer.
A common problem is that people misjudge the amount of oil needed, not allowing room for the turkey to be placed inside. But even when the oil is at the right level, a partial frozen turkey can also cause hot oil to spew a jet of fire.
“When a turkey is still partially frozen, that means there is still ice under the skin of the turkey,” Mr. Drengenberg said.
The ice turns to water and then to steam, and the only way that it can escape is by becoming a bubble in the hot oil. “It will blow out of the turkey fryer and takes hot oil with it,” he said.
The oil then often splashes down into the fire below. (Thawing in a refrigerator takes about 24 hours for every five pounds of turkey.)
He said that manufacturers have approached them about the certification, but UL has been clear that the fryers will not get certification unless they change significantly. Mr. Drengenberg did note that some manufacturers have been using sturdier frames, which are less likely to tip over.
Of course, even Mr. Drengenberg acknowledged that fried turkey tastes great. “Our recommendation is go to a restaurant that serves fried turkey,” he said. “They have bigger turkey fryers. They are experts. They are professionals.”
“It was illegal — I don’t know I realized it at the time,” she said. “When I started doing this, I wanted a way to make it safe to get fried turkey.”
For the past five years, she has been serving deep-fried turkey all year around, with flavors like cajun, Jamaican jerk, buffalo and lemon pepper.
“They come out juicy and moist. It’s almost a velvety texture,” she said.
While she sells deep-fried turkey all the time in the form of turkey sandwiches, single wings, and single legs, Thanksgiving is the restaurant’s peak season, with approximately 4,000 turkeys sold for the holiday. The price for a turkey jumps to $75.50 and up, from $53.50, for the holidays.
To meet the demand, Ms. Westbrooks ramps up her staff from around five to 20 and keeps the kitchen open for 24 hours a day for a week with 12-hour morning and evening shifts. Each turkey takes 18 to 24 minutes to fry, a fraction of the roasting time for a turkey.
About 40 percent of their sales are now outside New York. Jive Turkey ships fully fried — refrigerated, not frozen, because that changes the flavor, she said — turkeys by overnight delivery. The turkeys are placed in a foam cooler and include a special bag to reheat the turkey in the oven, without drying it out.
Ms. Westbrooks said that a deep-fried turkey is good refrigerated for about four days, so people can come early. But the peak is on Thanksgiving Day, when doors open on at 9 a.m. They don’t take advance orders. “It’s on a first-come, first-served basis,” she said.
The store officially closes at 3 p.m., though they continue cooking away to serve all the customers who have arrived at that point. “We figure if by 3 o’clock if you haven’t figured out where you are getting your turkey on Thanksgiving Day, you might not be,” she said.
Then the Jive Turkey workers go home for their own Thanksgiving dinners (fried turkey, of course).
She added, “We are not open the day after Thanksgiving.”
Jive Turkey owner is Miss Thanksgiving!
For Aricka Westbrooks, owner of Jive Turkey, where deep-fried turkeys are the signature (heck they’re the only) dish, the week before Thanksgiving should be highlight of the calendar. And it is — for all of Westbrooks turkey-scarfing customers.
Starting on Tuesday and continuing through the Nov. 27 holiday, Westbrooks’s Fort Greene restaurant has been in a constant state of alert. The phone literally does not stop ringing from the shop’s 9 am opening time until its 10 pm closing. Turkey fry cooks are operating round-the-clock on two, 12-hour shifts.
Even Westbrooks’s mother, Alice, has flown in from Chicago to help manage the crowds and work the door when the lines start forming (in other words, be nice to Alice if you want turkey).
“I’m not complaining because Thanksgiving gives us the exposure that lasts all year,” said Westbrooks, now overseeing her fifth holiday at her Myrtle Avenue take-out joint. “But it’s bittersweet because where I come from, Thanksgiving was always such a family holiday. Now, I work so hard before Thanksgiving Day that I just about collapse on Thanksgiving night.”
She collapses so you don’t have to, making Westbrooks a veritable patron saint of America’s true national holiday (no wonder she ships her deep-fried birds all over the country).
“It is a great holiday and I’m thrilled to make it a happy one for people,” she said. “Let’s face it, no one likes to cook a turkey when the house is full of people you’d rather be talking to.”
The goal when Westbrooks started in 2003 was certainly not to ruin her own Thanksgiving, but to find a niche in New York’s competitive ethnic and comfort food market.
Seeing a complete lack of deep-fried turkey restaurants in the city, Westbrooks made a decision that others had clearly considered madness: she opened a deep-fried turkey restaurant.
“Just because no one had opened a deep-fried turkey restaurant didn’t mean that there wasn’t a market for it,” she said. “Once you have a deep-fried turkey, you know how good a turkey can be.”
Westbrooks’s background is in marketing, so once she came up with the food — turkey — and the name — Jive Turkey — this thing marketed itself. Now the walls are covered in tributes from customers, newspapers and national magazines — plus the ubiquitous proclamations from Borough President Markowitz (bet you didn’t know that Aug. 4, 2003 was “Jive Turkey Opening Day in Brooklyn”?)
She started with one fryer. Now she has six, all bubbling and hissing day and night, birthing moist, insanely flavorful birds every 20 minutes.
Do the math: That’s simply not enough fryer capacity to keep the lines from forming next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Worse, once people get on line, they tend to call friends on their cellphones — and the friends add on their own requests.
“By the time they get up to the front of the line, their order has gone from one peach bourbon turkey to a peach bourbon turkey, a Cajun turkey and two Jive Turkeys,” said Alice Westbrooks.
The Westbrooks aren’t the only people who long for the quieter days this time of year.
“I come in here five times a week,” said David Washington, a regular who lives and works in the neighborhood. “The taste is truly unique — juicy and delicious.
“But I never come in during Thanksgiving!”
Jive Turkey [441 Myrtle Ave., at Waverly Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 797-1688] does not take advance orders. Store is open 9 am–10 pm in the week before Thanksgiving and 9 am-3 pm on Thanksgiving Day. Lines are long. Prepare accordingly. Turkeys are $75.50–$88.50 during the holidays.
©2008 The Brooklyn Paper
Meet & Eat: Aricka Westbrook, Jive Turkey
Posted by Laren Spirer, November 25, 2008 at 11:30 AM
We caught up with entrepreneur Aricka Westbrook during the height of her busy season. The owner of Jive Turkey in Clinton Hill is churning out thousands of deep fried turkeys in fifteen varieties to ship all over the country for a Thanksgiving dinner not to be missed.
Name: Aricka Westbrook
Location: Clinton Hill, Brooklyn
Occupation: Owner of Jive Turkey restaurant and mail order company.
When was the first time you had a deep-fried turkey? I made my first turkey in my backyard in Brooklyn and had a party! It was devoured by friends and I knew I had a hit!
How many turkeys do you sell during the Thanksgiving season? What's the most popular variety? This year we are on track to sell a record 3,500 birds, the most popular is peach bourbon.
Any tips for someone who wants to attempt to deep-fry a turkey in New York City? It's illegal to do it with the standard backyard equipment in New York City, which I didn't know when I started, but because it is impossible to put out any possible fire that could start, I would avoid it.
Favorite comfort food? Mashed potatoes, gravy and fried turkey!
Guilty pleasures? A fresh chocolate covered custard filled doughnut from Lord's Bakery in Flatbush.
Food you won't eat? None.
Describe your perfect meal. One where I want to go home and attempt to recreate the recipe again and again, it was so good!
Most memorable New York City meal? Dinner at Mercer Kitchen on a busy night when the food, drinks and service were all in sync.
Best pizza in the city? Pinos La Forchetta in Park Slope on 7th Avenue, Grandma's Slice.
Favorite burger? Soda Bar on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights.
Favorite bagel? Everything bagel with onion, tomato, cucumber and lox cream cheese at Bergen Bagel on Bergen Street in Prospect Heights.
Best late-night eats? I go to Soda Bar and get that burger!
Undiscovered gem? Hanco's Vietnamese Sandwich Shop on Bergen Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? Joan Hamburg of WOR, she had me on her show a couple of years ago and I call her for recommendations all the time.
What's the best recommendation she has given you? We went to Brasserie 8 1/2 at 9 West 57th for a Christmas Dinner. I loved it.
441 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn NY, 11205 (on Waverly; map)
Serious Eats post and reader comments can be found HERE