Barbecue Turkey Should Be a Thanksgiving Tradition
Last week’s Thanksgiving dinner has now faded into a tryptophan-hazed memory. Everyone around me is compiling holiday shopping lists and making New Years plans, but I’m still thinking about turkey—and barbecued turkey in particular.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since July. when I was passing through Decatur, Alabama, and stopped by Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q to visit Chris Lilly. The long open pits were slap full of ribs, pork shoulders, and split chickens as Lilly and team cooked around the clock, getting ready for a flood of take-out orders for July Fourth celebrations the following day. It was an impressive production.
I was surprised, though, to learn that July 3rd wasn’t their busiest takeout day. “Without a doubt,” Lilly told me, “the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is our biggest day of the year.”
I called Lilly a couple of weeks ago up to check in on how his Thanksgiving orders were shaping up. “Super busy,” he said. “Homemade pies, whole turkeys, and pit-cut spiral cook hams, plus our normal bulk business, like mac-and-cheese and greens.”
Lilly already knew exactly how many whole turkeys they would sell the day before Thanksgiving: 150. “We only have a limited amount of pit space because of our normal cooking,” he says. “We start booking those [reservations] on November 1st and we totally sold out by November 14th.”
With each passing year, more and more families have turned to barbecue restaurants for a pre-cooked Thanksgiving bird. “It’s always been a huge day for us,” Lilly says, “but it started out as a big day for homemade pies. Turkey has really grown in recent years.”
Anthony DiBenardo, the owner/pitmaster of Swig & Swine in Charleston, South Carolina, agrees. “It definitely builds every year,” he says. This year his three restaurants sold 240 whole smoked toms, each of which cost $80 and fed 18-20 people, plus 164 smoked turkey breasts. He also dished out hundreds of pans of classic holiday sides, like corn pudding, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows and pecans.
Swig & Swine was one of the few barbecue restaurants that was open on Turkey Day itself, unlocking the doors from ten till noon so customers could pick up orders the day of the feast. “The original goal was convenience,” DiBernardo says. “They can take it home and just keep it warm.” DiBernardo and his crew cooked the turkeys overnight on their Lang and BQ pits, pulled them off around 8:00 am, and wrapped them for pickup.
“A lot of people really look forward to it now,” he says. “I don’t take it lightly. I’m cooking the turkey for their family gathering.”
And that got me thinking about holiday cooking and family traditions. As someone who comes from a family that has always cooked its own Thanksgiving bird, I have a visceral reaction against outsourcing the anchor of the meal to someone like Lilly or DiBernardo, as strong as their barbecue skills are. It just seems like taking the easy way out.
But what if no one in your family actually enjoys spending hours in the kitchen roasting poultry or—even worse—has no idea how turn out a gobbler that isn’t as dry as cork or raw in the middle? Maybe letting a professional take the reins isn’t such a bad idea.
Family traditions evolve, after all, and they tend to shift during the transition from one generation to the next. As my grandmother aged, it became too taxing for her to manage big roasting pans with twenty pound birds. The turkey-cooking duties passed to an uncle, and one year, in a fit of gadget-mania, he purchased a propane burner and stainless steel pot and deep fried two turkeys in the backyard.
This innovation injected new doses of drama into our annual gatherings, as curious dogs and cats nosed around pots of bubbling peanut oil while nephews kicked soccer balls haphazardly around the yard. Fortunately, no serious mishaps occurred during the period I’ve come to call The Fried Turkey Era, which lasted until just a few years ago.
To be honest, I wasn’t sorry to see that tradition pass. I’ve always been lukewarm on fried turkey. It’s not so much because of the texture or flavor (though I think it’s telling that so many fry cooks use big syringes to inject their birds with herb-laced marinades and melted butter.) The real problem is that when you fry a turkey there are no pan drippings left over, and that means there’s no gravy. The whole point of Thanksgiving is the gravy.
During the Fried Turkey Era, my family compensated with jars of pre-made gravy ordered from a fancy-pants catalog. The first year I spooned gelatinous “gravy” from a glass jar onto my turkey and mashed potatoes, I was appalled. What happened to tradition?
WATCH: How To Smoke Your Thanksgiving Turkey
So maybe this trend toward takeout barbecue turkeys is a good thing. After all, pit smoked turkey is a far superior to anything roasted in an oven or deep fried in oil—and it’s a lot less effort for whoever gets tasked with turkey duty.
You don’t even have to give up the gravy. “We cook the turkey in pans to catch all the jus,” says Chris Lilly. “So the customer gets the turkey drippings as well and can make gravy.”
This year, Swig & Swine took things a step further and made gravy for their takeout customers—some 80 gallons of it. That’s downright hospitable.
Two decades from now, I can imagine a young man in Decatur, Alabama, bringing his fiancée home for Thanksgiving for the first time. As they sit down at the table, he explains with pride, “We always get our Thanksgiving turkey from Big Bob Gibson, of course.”
I can envision two sisters in Charleston having a heated phone conversation. They’ve just learned that their brother, who recently started taking cooking classes, is insisting this year that he’s going to roast the turkey himself, and he’s going to do it inside in the oven, no less.
“This is going to be a disaster,” one of them says.
“I know,” the other says. “Why can’t he just order one from Swig & Swine? He has no respect for tradition!”