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They're crowing with delight over deep-fried turkeys


FOR WILLIE AND Elsie Pearson, this is serious frying time.

Since mid-November, the couple have been frying turkey after turkey after turkey in hot peanut oil at their business, Willie P's Deep Fried Turkeys, which they operate out of a commercial kitchen in their Northwest Baltimore home.

This year, Willie Pearson estimated that he deep-fried approximately 400 birds during Thanksgiving week, a pace that almost left him and his wife too tired to enjoy their own family feast.

A balky stove slowed down the cooking operation, he said, causing the couple to work longer hours than planned.

"We cooked until 8 o'clock at night on Thanksgiving," Pearson told me recently. "Then one of our daughters, Kathie, came over and got us, drove us to their house, where they fed us Thanksgiving dinner. Then they drove us home."

Deep-fried turkeys have been getting a lot of media attention recently. For instance, a few weeks ago when Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa displayed his culinary skills for a national television audience on CBS, "The Goose" deep-fried a turkey.

This turkey-cooking method has been around for some time. I first encountered it about 15 years ago in New Orleans at a national convention of food editors and writers.

Most of the members of the nation's eating press were skeptical of the idea of turkeys being fried in oil. But when we tasted the turkey, our skepticism melted. The meat was amazingly moist and tender.

While I liked the flavor of the bird, I knew I wasn't going to try frying one. The operation required a lot of oil, a lot of work and a lot of cleanup. This, I decided, was a turkey-cooking technique that should be tried in a commercial kitchen, not in my house.

On a recent Saturday morning, I drove out to Willie P's kitchen to watch a turkey get fried and to taste the results. When I walked in, peanut oil already was warming in custom-made vats that sat on a large commercial-style stove in a separate wing of his house.

Dressed in restaurant whites, Pearson repeatedly checked the temperature of the oil and the temperature of the bird. His wife, also dressed in white, recorded the weight of each turkey and the time each started cooking.

Pearson was a careful worker, wearing gloves when he removed the bird from the boiling oil and repeatedly washing his hands. I noticed that the kitchen, outfitted like those I had seen in restaurants, had certificates on the wall from the health department.

As Pearson fried a couple of birds - one of which was destined for an office party - he told me the story of his cooking life. Now 61 years old, he said he had grown up near Hartsville, S.C.

He recalled watching his great-grandmother, Isabella Pearson, deep-fry turkeys in a cast-iron pot heated over a wood fire. He came to Baltimore in 1957 and eventually got a job at an Eastern Baltimore chemical plant now called Grace Davison. He still works there.

He met his wife, a Calvert County native, in Baltimore. While he cooked from time to time - "Barbecue, minced pork was my sure-enough thing" - she did most of the cooking for their five children, he said.

Occasionally, he would fry a turkey in the style of his South Carolina relatives. The Baltimore family members and friends praised the flavor of the bird and encouraged him to sell the turkey to the public.

"They kept telling me that turkey is too good for just us," he said.

Opening a business was a big step, he said. "I am a chemical worker; what did I know about running a food business?" But he learned.

He took food-safety classes. He bought the necessary cooking and safety equipment, and he practiced before opening the business last January. "We fried a lot of turkeys before we learned how fast they cook," he said.

The deep-fried birds take about 48 minutes for a 12-pound turkey and a little over an hour and 20 minutes for a 20-pound bird, which is much quicker than roasting a turkey.

Pearson also told me he marinates the birds, but he was unwilling to give away the "secret spices" he puts on the raw poultry.

Once he perfected his cooking technique, he had to decide how much to charge for the deep-fried turkeys. A religious man, Pearson said he prayed to God for guidance one night.

"When I woke up the next morning, the first thing in my head was, 'Charge $2 a pound,' " he said.

So that became the price. A customer who wants a 20-pound, deep-fried bird can expect to pay $40, plus $5 extra if the bird is sliced.

The turkey I tasted, fresh from the deep fryer, was moist, tender and - to steal a phrase from one of Pearson's granddaughters - "some kind of good."

I suggested to Pearson that he should raise his prices. But he scoffed. "This is America," he said. "There should be something that everybody can afford and enjoy."

Pearson told me that the stove problem that slowed him down before Thanksgiving has been fixed. Now, he said, the burners are able to go full-throttle to keep that oil bubbling and those birds frying.

The deadline for ordering a fried Christmas turkey is Dec. 14. Customers can choose a bird ranging from 12 to 25 pounds and arrange to pick up the cooked bird by calling Willie P's at 410-542-7910.

Pearson said he deep-fries turkeys because it gives him a feeling of satisfaction. "When people like my turkeys, it makes me feel good about what I do," he said.

His wife said there might be another reason behind her husband's talent for frying turkey. "He likes to eat, eat, eat," she -- said.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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