THE TURKEY THAT emerged from the bubbling oil in Willie Pearson's West Baltimore kitchen was golden, slightly spiced and delicious. In the hands of a less-experienced cook, the procedure of deep-frying the bird could have been dangerous.
Willie P, as he calls himself, is a deep-fried turkey pro. He has been cooking Willie P's Deep Fried Turkeys from the code-approved commercial kitchen set up in his home for more than five years.
Booked solid for Thanksgiving, by tonight he will sell some 700 deep-fried turkeys at $2.25 a pound to customers who have reserved a bird and driven to his home.
He is hoping that a new ordering procedure and new vessels that cook 25 turkeys at a time will cut down on the backup of customers who in prior years have filled his back yard as they waited for their turkeys to emerge from the fryer. He fries year-round, and he and his wife, Elsie, are already taking orders for December birds.
Lately, he said, some of his business has come from would-be fryers, backyard types who either tried and failed at deep-frying or who have decided it is too much hassle.
"I have guys who buy these cookers, then they get them home and read all the directions, and then they call me and say, `Man, I might blow up my house,' " he told me last week.
Other new bird business, he said, comes from customers who have tasted a neighbor's version of deep-fried turkey and found it lacking.
Frying a turkey in hot oil is a practice that began in the South, but has become more widespread as inexpensive turkey-cooking kits have appeared in the nation's hardware stores.
However, as more Americans are dropping their birds in hot oil, more warnings are being issued about the dangers of this cooking method. Last Thanksgiving, for example, a deep-frying turkey accident sparked a fire that did an estimated $40,000 damage to a house in Topeka, Kan.
In June 2002, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. said it could not give its valued seal of approval to any of the deep-fat fryers it had tested for home use because the potential for starting a household fire or injuring the cook was high.
The independent safety testing organization produced a video showing how a deep-fat fryer can become a flaming inferno if the oil from the pot spills down onto its gas burner.
"We are telling people to think twice about using a deep-fat fryer," John Drengenberg, UL manager of consumer affairs, said last week in a telephone interview from Northbrook, Ill.
In addition to the oil-spillage problem, Drengenberg said his crew was worried that unstable fryers could be easily toppled by a stray dog or rambunctious child. Then there is the exploding-turkey phenomenon. This occurs, he said, when a partially thawed turkey hits the hot oil, and moisture inside the bird becomes steam. The steam pops the turkey skin, sending searing oil out of the pot, toward the cook.
Finally, Drengenberg reminded that if left unattended, heated oil can reach a "flash point," a temperature in which it, in effect, catches fire.
To help prevent exploding carcasses and other deep-fat-fried threats, UL issued a series of safety tips for backyard fryers. They include placing the cooking vessel on a level surface, away from the house (not in the garage or carport), wearing insulated mittens, keeping a close watch on the oil temperature, keeping the raw turkey dry and, oh yes, keeping a fire extinguisher handy. Water from the garden hose does not work on an oil fire.
These tips of deep-frying turkey resemble those that appear on a Web site (www.eatturkey .com) operated by the National Turkey Federation. "It is a fun way to cook a turkey, but there is a lot of hot oil involved," said Sherrie Rosenblatt of the turkey federation. "Our basic message to deep-fry cooks," she said, "is be sensible."
Listening to these warnings strengthened my respect for the dangers of bubbling oil. But it did not produce any fear of frying.
A few years ago, when Peter Jensen, a Sun colleague, and I deep-fried a bird in his back yard, the experience stirred my soul. Moreover, the flavor of the meat was exceptional. The bird was remarkably moist, and because it had been injected with a Cajun mixture, it was also spicy. (Rather than injecting his birds, Willie P marinates with a secret mixture of "a little something old and a little something new.")
Wondering if anything that tasted that good might be bad for me, I got a nutritional breakdown from the National Turkey Federation comparing similar portions of its recipes for Cajun deep-fried and herb-roasted turkeys.
A 6-ounce serving of the deep-fried bird had 383 calories, 21 grams of fat and 1,116 milligrams of sodium; the herb-roasted bird had 362 calories, 16 grams of fat and 233 milligrams of sodium. The deep-fried was a little more sinful, but nothing that made me uncomfortable.