Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The year was 1997. The place was San Diego, California. The man was our crew coach, Mark. The bird was a frozen Hillshire Farms turkey, on special for about 98 cents per pound. In this this place...a chemical meltdown of catastrophic proportions threatened civilization, if only briefly. To the great benefit of mankind, man and fowl united to waylay this near disaster.

This is their story.

We should have been concerned when Coach Mark ended the morning practice session with an announcement that he would be attending our party later that evening. To my knowledge, we had all given false addresses at team registration to prevent this very eventuality. But he knew where we lived and that the team was meeting for one of its semi-monthly parties, and he was coming. With a turkey frier. With that last bit of information in mind, the best course of action would have been to go home, pack, and move back to campus that afternoon. But I simply did not appreciate then the power of this awesome contraption.

In 1997, turkey friers were not yet standard hardware in the American kitchen. They were demonstrated on late night television by men wearing white lab coats and protective eye wear. They were complicated, innovative and intimidating. They were large and unwieldy, and they seemed to threaten sudden incineration of anyone or anything that should set foot within ten feet. Yes, in those days, everyone was aware, at least peripherally, of this fundamental truth: Turkey friers are not to be trifled with, and should only be operated with professional supervision and/or guidance from some sort of cleric.

But Coach Mark was the kind of guy that did not believe in fundamental truths. It's not as if he detested them, or even doubted their existence; he just didn't like them. He liked the world his way. From Mark's perspective, fundamentals of any kind--be they of truth, science, or what-have-you--were annoyances that someone had carelessly left in his path, where they would surely get in the way a good time. Besides, what was more fundamental than one man cooking a 12 lb. turkey HIS way, goddammit?

Unfortunately for those of us on the Varsity team, 1997, "his way" was in our backyard, with five gallons of pure peanut oil and a match. And so it came to pass that, at 5:30 p.m. (D-Day -1:30), Coach Mark arrived at our house, toting the following apparatus:

1. A 7-gallon capacity steel vat (with legs to prop it up), thermometer attached

2. A large Bunsen burner (with 2-gallon-capacity fuel tank on the side)

3. A 5-gallon jug of peanut oil (Kirkland brand, from Coscto)

4. A 12 lb. frozen turkey

5. A match

In anticipation of Coach Mark's arrival, and as a precautionary measure, my team members and I had commenced drinking exercises at approximately 3:00 that afternoon. This meant that Coach Mark and his apparatus gained entry into our house with little resistance. He ordered the bird into our freezer, then proceeded to the backyard, where he went about assembling the components of the turkey frier.

The instructions said to pour all of the peanut oil into the vat, install the thermometer at the top of the vat, light the burner, then wait for the thermometer to reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed simple enough, and to our collective surprise, the vat was up and running within a few minutes of Coach Mark's arrival, seemingly without incident.

An hour passed.

At the end of the hour, I noticed that the thermometer had reached 500 degrees. I also noted that the thermometer's element was not actually submerged in even an ounce of the five gallons of peanut oil below. Instead, it was measuring the temperature of the air ABOVE the oil. When I placed the element in the oil, the temperature spiked to approximately 650 degrees Fahrenheit. Sensing a change in plans, I called to Coach Mark. "No problem," he said, as he emerged from our house carrying a full glass of water.

Mark was a gifted rower, a skilled coach, and a great friend to his team. But he was challenged in the ways of kitchen science, and deaf to our warnings. Those of us in attendance ran for cover as Mark dropped eight ounces of water into five gallons of scalding peanut oil. The exact science of water, oil and heat is unimportant at this point--it suffices to say that people pay good money every Fourth of July to attend firework shows that pale in comparison to Mark's next 1.2 seconds of glory. Mark was dispatched to the hedges against the fence as a mushroom cloud of oil and steam erupted in our very own backyard. After we retrieved Mark from the hedge, he hurried back to Ground Zero to see what had become of the turkey frier. To our horror, it was intact, and the temperature of the oil had "cooled" to just over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was Mark's moment to shine. He ordered the turkey out of the freezer, unwrapped same, and made for the turkey frier. We considered warning him that his bird was carrying another eight ounces of frozen water, and that he may experience similar results, but we were afraid to taint his experiment with rational thought. He clamped a make-shift "claw" device to the bird, and with no significant amount of caution, began to lower it into the peanut oil.

What followed was a thermodynamic event that would befuddle and frustrate CalTech professors for years. ("Why didn't WE think of that?!") As Coach Mark lowered his turkey into the Cauldron of Death, the turkey frier roared like a Saturn V rocket on its first moonshot. Coach Mark was thrown backward into the bushes for the second time that evening as the Rocketbird whirred and swooshed into the atmosphere atop two-thousand pounds of sheer thrust. If that turkey accomplished nothing in life, may it at least be remembered as the first dead turkey to hug the edge of the sound barrier.

The insurance people told me I was not allowed to discuss or write about what became of Mark, the turkey frier, or the bird. Just know this: Blackened raw turkey is not a delicacy in ANY culture. It is neither "Cajun" nor "seared." Don't let anyone convince you otherwise--unless they're on late night T.V., in which case they are probably right, and you should buy two.