The tradition of barbecued turkey is woven into American history. There is evidence that turkeys were roasted; stewed; and indeed, barbecued in the American Southeast, with archaeological finds dating back thousands of years. Dr. Heather Lapham, research archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that turkey meat was dried over hot coals and dipped in bear or nut oil to make a portable meal.
Fast-forward to the early 1900s, when Samuel Greenberg, a Jewish community leader, started smoking turkey in Tyler, Texas, to fill a need for kosher barbecue. The demand grew as smoked turkeys became “the rage of the moment,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1939. The Greenberg family started shipping turkeys around the country by packing the smoked birds in candy-store crates.
Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, confirmed that Greenberg wasn't the only one contributing to this trend. In the early 1930s, Fort Worth resident Rose Diamond shipped turkeys out of her home kitchen to destinations as far away as New York and Los Angeles. Smoked turkey's popularity inspired a dish called “turkey pâté” that was made of finely chopped smoked turkey and mayonnaise, which Vaughn explained was considered worthy of serving alongside fine liver pâtés and foie gras.
Between the 1940s and early 2000s, smoked turkey was sold mostly during the winter holidays or as a niche alternative to pork. In our interview with Rodney Scott, he explained that his restaurant originally offered smoked turkeys only for special Thanksgiving orders, but he later added barbecued turkey to the daily menu for customers looking to avoid pork or beef. In a video produced for the hunger-relief organization Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Ed Mitchell, a renowned pit master from North Carolina, described his mother substituting turkey for pork on the holiday dinner table. He said that she prepared turkeys using the methods and ingredients she used for barbecued pork to accommodate family members who shied away from eating pork.
And it's not just whole turkeys that are popular: Vaughn says the trend of smoking turkey breasts has taken off in the last decade. “It went from a few places doing it to now you almost expect it walking into a place in Texas.” He attributes the rise, in part, to efficiency. “Smoked turkey breast is popular in barbecue joints because there's little loss of fat and moisture during cooking, no bones, and it's easier to hold and serve custom-sized portions of than smoked chicken.” Whatever the reason, we're excited to be in on the turkey trend.