The call-911 Christmas turkey

Deep-fried turkey is crispy, tender and succulent. It can also be extremely dangerous.

The call-911 Christmas turkey

Deep-fried turkey is a dish for people who want to live on the edge. Steve Pendergrass, a firefighter in Kern County, Calif., found this out on Christmas Day 2003. He’d invited about 20 people over for Christmas dinner and was preparing two medium-sized birds. After deep-frying the first one, he immersed the second into the large pot of oil. “A ball of fire” came up from the propane-fuelled cooker, he says. Panicking, he tried to pull the turkey out of the fryer, but the bird and the pot tipped over. Boiling oil spilled over him and the patio floor where he had been cooking. Suddenly, his clothes were on fire and his skin was burning—chunks of flesh were “falling off,” he says. As his wife and two young daughters watched horrified through the window, he stripped off his clothes and rolled around in the snow to put out the flames.

In recent years, a growing number of fires caused by deep-fried turkeys have been reported, according to the Underwriters Laboratories website, North America’s largest independent product-safety organization. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many fires deep-fried turkeys cause in the U.S. or in Canada, since all types of cooking fires are usually lumped together. Nevertheless, in the U.S., where the cooking method originated, fire departments have issued safety demonstration videos and warnings, says Lorraine Carli, spokesperson for the U.S. National Fire Protection Association. Just a few weeks ago, a group of Canadians from Toronto witnessed local emergency services extinguishing a deep-fried turkey fire at a Buffalo Bills football game. Luckily, the fire was put out before anyone was hurt. Carli expects more incidents like these as the cooking method becomes more common. It’s a “recipe for disaster,” she says.

Pendergrass’s mistake was that the oil was too hot. This is one of the hazards of deep- fried turkey—the oil has to be exactly the correct temperature. Once it starts overheating, it soon reaches the temperature at which it ignites, called the flashpoint (about 235° C for peanut oil). Another common error is putting too much oil in the pot and then, when the turkey is added, the oil spills over onto the open flame, says John Drengenberg, manager of consumer affairs at Underwriters Laboratories. Or you can submerge the bird too quickly, so the oil overflows onto the fire. Or you might not have thawed the bird long enough. If any part of the turkey is still icy, the ice will turn to steam, and the boiling oil will either start to splutter or the whole pot will explode.

Some models of turkey fryers are also really tippy. They’ve gotten safer in recent years, says Drengenberg. But while the Canadian Standards Association authorizes a safety rating to several types of turkey fryers, his organization says no model is safe enough to make the grade.

When Californian Kevin Harrison deep-fried his turkey in October 2002, he cooked it inside his garage. (Manufacturers usually recommend cooking outside, a good distance from one’s property.) As he submerged the bird, the oil flashed and produced a “bright red flame that was shooting three feet high out of the boiling pot,” according to testimony in court documents. Harrison’s neighbour, Richard Hernandez, ran over to try to help. As they were trying to extinguish the fire, Hernandez spilled burning oil on his arms, legs and face. He survived with second- and third-degree burns and subsequently sued both the turkey-fryer manufacturer and the store where his neighbour bought the cooker, settling for US$2.15 million.

Despite the dangers, deep-fried turkey is becoming more popular in Canada, says Stephen Alexander, owner of Cumbrae Farms, a high-end butcher shop in Toronto. He himself has deep-fried turkey only once, but says it was “amazing.” Deep-frying seals in all the juices so the meat is tender and succulent, he says. The skin is crispy and dark. The bird cooks in very little time—30 to 45 minutes—even with a larger bird.

After Steve Pendergrass’s accident, he spent three weeks in the intensive care unit with third-degree burns to 25 per cent of his body. He is finally back at work. In his spare time, he visits burn victims, particularly people who have been injured while deep-frying turkey (five of them to date). He’s also met another firefighter who fried his bird while he was on duty, and almost burned down the fire station. “I wouldn’t recommend it to other people,” he says. Then again, “it depends on your aversion to risk.”

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