Will the turkey catch on fire? This was the “burning” question that fascinated us kids at Thanksgiving. I suspect the adults were secretly wondering the same thing. (*Spoiler alert – if you are a fan of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – you can probably figure out the answer.)
You may remember my story about the search for my grandmother’s potato salad recipe at the start of the pandemic’s “safer at home” order. As I was excavating my recipes – bits of paper here and there, forgotten recipes stuffed in cookbooks – I found more of her recipes, including this hand-written one. It is just called “Roast chicken in bag,” and on the other side – “Turkey done same way….”
My grandmother swore by cooking the Thanksgiving “bird” in a large paper bag. A really big turkey required two paper bags.
When I started reading the description of preparing the turkey, it brought memories in waves – of hot, busy kitchens with dishes clattering, of lifting the big turkey platter carefully from the cupboard, of yummy smells, of my grandmother, and of family.
I laughed at the note at the end of the recipe – “The paper bag won’t burn or char.” What confidence! Maybe it was tradition, but we didn’t believe it. Not for a minute.
I doubt if the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line would approve of this method. I can just hear the conversation.
BTTL: Hello, how can I help you make a memorable turkey?
Harried cook: My turkey caught on fire.
Harried cook: My turkey caught on fire.
BTTL: Did you call 911?
Harried cook: Oh yes. I want to know if it’s still safe to eat.
According to the Butterball folks, many people do not know how to cook turkeys. Which is probably why their Turkey Talk-Line has been going strong since 1981. It all began with six home economists working the phones that holiday season to answer 11,000 turkey-cooking questions. Open every November and December, the turkey experts today number over 50, answering more than 100,000 questions. You can even connect with the Talk-Line through social media and Alexa. The question about the turkey catching on fire is not on the list of the most common questions posed to the Talk-Line. I checked.
Does this method work? I went full kitchen test mode to see if the method was as good as my memories. I wasn’t going to roast a turkey, but my grandmother writes in her recipe that the method is good for a fryer or whole chickens. I decided to try it out before I wrote the story. It was hard to find a medium-size paper bag, so I just cut down a large, clean grocery paper bag. In went the chicken.
Just like back in the day, I kept an eye out on the paper bag. I did not think the Butterball Turkey Hot-Line would take questions about a chicken. Plus, I was nostalgic. I couldn’t not watch!
It did turn out moist and quite yummy. Be sure to check the internal temperature before eating (see Foodie note and resources below).
Surprisingly, or maybe not, searching the web for chicken or turkey cooked in a brown paper bag resulted in quite a few tasty and authoritative recipes. Think Martha Stewart.
What is the secret? The secret is to not disturb the bird during the cooking time – do not even peek! Plus, the instructions are simple. Simplicity is good when it comes to holiday meals.
For the foodies, the advantage of the brown paper bag over a commercial cooking bag is that the paper breathes, so the turkey roasts. In a cooking bag the turkey steams which gives a different flavor.
Did our Thanksgiving turkey ever catch fire? Even though we had our faces practically glued to the oven – no, it never caught fire. Why? The oven is set at 325 degrees, well below the burning point of paper.*
Thanksgiving will look different this year for many families. We will be thankful for our family memories. For our meals together. For our food memories – no matter what our food traditions are – that bond us.
No pandemic will change that.
And we can be thankful that our turkey never caught on fire.
What is your favorite Thanksgiving memory?
Foodie note: There are many ways to cook a turkey. No matter which method you use, be sure the internal temperature of the bird is 165 degrees. That goes for any poultry as well.
* The bag will not burn because paper burns at 480 degrees Fahrenheit (reference.com). You roast the turkey at 325 degrees and chicken at 400 degrees. Of course, do not let the bag touch the oven’s heating element. Ray Bradbury thought that the burning point of paper was 451 degrees Fahrenheit, which is, of course, where the title of his book – Fahrenheit 451 – comes from. Various scientific experiments put the burning point between 451- and 480-degrees Fahrenheit.
Food Safety Tips for Your Holiday Turkey
Food Safety charts for meat and poultry
Butterball Turkey Talk-Line
Diane White, MA, PMP, earned advanced degrees in information technologies from George Washington University and education from USF. She has been managing projects for over 25 years in the information technology and telecommunications industries. She joined OLLI-USF in 2008 and has taken OLLI courses in art, art appreciation, architecture, music, great books, science, nature, literature, and leadership. She is a member of OLI’s Tech Squad, teaches a variety of technology courses, and is OLLI Connects’ technology contributor and consultant.
8 Replies to “Will the Turkey Catch on Fire?”
What a great story, Diane! Such vivid memories. And thanks for the science behind the cooking magic. Happy Thanksgiving!
Thank you Arlene. I enjoyed writing it. Thanksgiving is a great time to share family stories. Write them down and share with your loved ones – especially poignant during these times. Happy Thanksgiving!
Diane, LOVE IT! My mom did lots of things in paper bags…but back then they were in abundance and using it in the oven for rolls, roasts, and other things meant saving $. In our household recycling was all about THAT, and nothing to do with politically correct. I infrequently get a great brown paper bag but indeed keep these gems in my pantry. Thank you for sharing this story.
Thank you Bobbie. Glad you liked the story. I asked nicely at Publix and they gave me one for my experiment, nice and unused!
I just might try that chicken recipe! My son is cooking our bird on the grill after marinating. My most memorable holiday goof was when the turkey just slipped off the platter as I was carrying it into the dining room. With great presence of mind, I simply picked it up from the floor and brought it in and no one knew the difference. Then the other experience was my first Thanksgiving married and I used a stuffing recipe from the cookbook–my husband refused to eat it stating it “it didn’t taste like his mother’s”.
Hi Marylou, so funny about the turkey slipping off the platter. I wonder how many people that happened to! I remember having a special platter with a turkey on it. Only used once a year. Stuffing is such a personal taste. I only like it the way my grandmother and mom made it. I don’t like it any other way!
One of my favorite turkey memories was hearing about my dad’s co -worker’s family who got one of the first pre-stuffed turkeys and heard an explosion after it was in the oven for a while. The bird was stuffed too much and blew the oven door open, and she had stuffing hanging all over her kitchen.
Hi Margaret, I’ll bet that was a big mess. Exploding stuffed turkey; glad it didn’t happen to you!