Thanksgiving Innovation 101: The Turkey

According to the National Turkey Federation (which really does exist) roughly 85 percent of Americans plan to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.

That amounts to something like 45 to 50 million turkeys sold and 700 million to 800 million pounds of turkey meat eaten today — and the days to come as leftovers. The average turkey weighs 16 pounds and costs $22.03. Americans will spend close to $1 billion procuring turkeys (or $991.16 million to be exact).

This series of facts that is rather remarkable when one considers the fact that a large number of people in this country don’t really like turkey but eat it anyway out of respect for tradition.

In 2013 the Atlantic anointed turkey a “second-rate bird,” while the writers at Slate mused in 2014 that “literally any other meat tastes better.” In 2015 The Guardian advised that we should all take our Thanksgiving turkey and “throw it in the garbage,” prompting us to admire the temerity it takes for a group of Englishmen to offer instructions on a holiday they do not actually celebrate. And a year later the critique of turkey returned to the U.S. when GQ labeled it as “unequivocally the very worst part of Thanksgiving.”

And while we wholeheartedly disagree and believe that turkey is getting something of a bum rap, it’s also the case that eating turkey on Thanksgiving might not be as tradition-bound as we may have learned in elementary school.

It’s possible that the Pilgrims ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, but far from certain. Official accounts note that the colonists ate “wild fowl” at the first feast — but most historians agree that could also mean duck or goose. Turkey didn’t become standard fare on the Thanksgiving table until Abraham Lincoln officially declared it a national holiday in the 1860s.

But whether or not the Pilgrims actually ate turkey, and whether or not you actually like turkey, the odds are very good that your Thanksgiving meal will be centered around it. Maybe it will be brined, or maybe not, but it will spend hours being roasted in an oven before being carved up and served to the hungry. There isn’t a lot of room to really innovate the Thanksgiving turkey.

Or is there?

It’s 2018, after all, and there are now many new ways to prepare a turkey and new gadgets help with that preparation.

The Instant Pot Solution

There are two kinds of people in this country: those who are part of the Instant Pot cult and those who for the life of them can’t fathom why so many people are so excited about what is, at best, a souped-up pressure cooker.

The device is the brainchild of computer science PhD and entrepreneur Robert Wang, who in 2008 was looking for two things: a new idea for a startup and a way to feed his children that involved a lot less takeout. The Instant Pot multi cooker was the idea that ended up being the solution to both of those problems and in 2010 the first-generation product launched on Amazon. By January 2013, the second-generation Instant Pot became the bestseller in the pressure cooker category on Amazon. In 2016 the firm first rose to national consciousness on Prime Day, when the world met the $70 Instant Pot and hundreds of thousands of people bought one.

“I realized we had captured the imagination of the public,” Wang said — a statement that has only gotten more true as the company has rolled out more Instant Pots (there are now 10 variations) and seen its fan base grow larger, more dedicated and more famous. Instant Pot doesn’t do much marketing as a company policy — but plenty of well-known people seem content to take on that duty for free on its behalf.

Mostly recently newly New York U.S. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has ginned up a lot of Instant Pot buzz with her series of Instagram stories that feature her talking legislative life while making dinner in her pressure cooker. Favorite recipes so far include black bean soup and macaroni and cheese. And the series of videos — which have been called 2018’s answer  to the “fireside chat” — have reportedly been big brand builders for both Ocasio-Cortez, and Instant Pot, whose sales notched a slight pre-holiday boost from the sudden influx of attention.

But is it possible to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in this thing?

The good(ish) news is you can — sort of. Most recipes indicate that cooking a whole bird in an Instant Pot requires a really big Instant Pot and also a pretty small turkey, one that weighs less than 8 to 9 pounds.

For those with smaller Instant Pots, cooking a 7-pound or 8-pound turkey breast in the pot is offered up as an alternative.

So much for the legs.

Instant Pot turkey takers praise its speed — 45 minutes to an hour — and say it makes a nice moist bird. But forget having crispy skin: Instant Potted birds don’t get crispy, so for that cooks will need a broiler and a real oven.

For really crispy turkey, you can always fry it.

Turkey Frying

Deep-fried turkey has been mainstream in the United State since the late 1980s, though the practice traces back to the 1930s, according to most experts. And when deep-fried turkey began making its nationwide spread, it wasn’t warmly embraced. The National Turkey Federation in 1987 compared eating deep-fried turkey to “staring into a loaded double-barrel shotgun. One barrel is a cardiologist’s nightmare, the other is a microbiologist’s worst dreams come true.”

But deep-fried turkey persisted. In 1996, Martha Stewart Living published a deep-fried turkey photo spread in its November issue, and a year later the New York Times favorably wrote up the emerging new Thanksgiving trend.

The deep fried turkey had arrived — and officially gone mainstream.

And more or less stayed that way.

“What we tend to see every year is a huge spike in turkey deep frying gear in the immediate week before Thanksgiving. The biggest spike is always the day before — it gives the impression that this is something home cooks spontaneously decide to try out,” Prat Vemana, chief product officer at The Home Depot, told PYMNTS in an email.

Vemana also noted that when consumers come in to purchase deep fryers they tend to make a few other purchases, particularly Christmas lights.

So is this innovation worth investigation?

It depends on one’s appetite for bird-related risk.

To deep-fry a turkey, one places it on a hanger-type apparatus into a giant aluminum vat of 400-degree oil heated with propane gas. It is a very fast cook, making it a whole lot faster than roasting a turkey.

And, unlike with the Instant Pot, it comes out of the fryer the familiar and attractive golden brown color — with all its crispiness intact.

So what’s not to love?

If one does it right, deep-fried turkey is delicious by most accounts. If one does it wrong, there are all kinds of ways it can end with a trip to the emergency room or worse.

Every year some people make the mistake of putting a frozen turkey in a hot deep-fryer and learning the hard way that this is a good way to cause an explosion. House fires caused by improperly-controlled turkey-fries also abound during Thanksgiving, as do treatments for burns when home chefs find that hot oil can do some serious damage to human skin.

So to sum up thus far, both frying and pressure cooking are faster than using an oven, and reportedly make an equally delicious bird. But pressure cooking means small and not very photogenic foul without the oven’s intervention, and frying a turkey runs a not-insignificant risk of hurting yourself or burning the house down.

Give up and use the oven?

Well that’s one option.  Or there’s always just letting someone else cook the turkey for you.

Dinner On Demand

Perhaps the best innovation to bring to the Thanksgiving turkey is also the oldest: find someone else to cook it.

And, as of 2018, there are all kinds of contenders offering up all sorts of options for that. For $160, Martha Stewart will send a prepped meal kit with in-depth instructions on each item, so consumers can have the feeling they actually cooked the Thanksgiving meal (they put the turkey in the oven all by themselves, after all), without all the shopping, measuring, recipe-reading, brining and glazing that normally go along with that claim.

Wegmans and Whole Foods, on the other hand, are selling entirely pre-cooked and ready-to-roll traditional Thanksgiving meals that will basically need little more than heating up on the big day.  At $269, a Whole Foods Thanksgiving dinner clocks in at the priciest — but also offers more options. Apart from the 16-pound turkey, the Whole Food Thanksgiving dinner also comes with a brown sugar spiral-cut ham.

And if all that sounds  too traditional, creative variations are also available. Dean & Deluca offers up a “turducken” — it’s a semi-boneless turkey filled with boneless duck, boneless chicken and stuffing made from ground pork sausage and Cajun-style cornbread — for $100, though it will have to be cooked in the oven by the purchaser. Denny’s is offering a full Thanksgiving Dinner on demand, but for a twist it is also throwing in a free grand slam breakfast with every order, because, well, more is more.

Letting someone else do the cooking is probably the easiest option — though also the costliest. The average American is into the average Thanksgiving meal for around $50, according to the National Retail Federation, and these options all start at least double that price. And of course, it means being at the mercy of another chef for the holiday — the food might be delicious or it might not, and all consumers can do is hope for the former.

But then being an innovator is never easy, even when it comes to innovating the main course for Thanksgiving. There are always risks — the turkey skin might be too pale, the turkey itself might explode, Denny’s might do a subpar job on your Thanksgiving feast — and yet one must bravely forage on.

Or, you know, just stick the turkey in the oven, and eat appetizers and watch football while you wait.

Some things, after all, are classics for a reason.

Happy Thanksgiving!



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