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Fry, turkey, fry

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Lian “Liam” Zhenying, an exchange student from China who studied at the University of Houston, learns about turkeys – and frying them – at a party given by his host Gregg Donovan.

Somewhere between touch football and the good china, Thanksgiving’s gone the way of lawn chairs in the driveway.

That’s because lawn chairs in the driveway are what it takes to put on a good turkey-frying shindig, and that’s what Thanksgiving has turned into for a growing number of families. Pink flamingos not required.

Realtor Reneé Davy Oakum has been frying turkeys with her husband, Todd, who owns Declaration Title, for the past five years. Their tradition started when they spent Thanksgiving with friends in Costa Rica. “The guys were talking about frying turkeys, and Todd was like, ‘Absolutely, I can do this,’” Reneé says. Once he started, “word got out that someone was deep-frying turkeys, and because our friends who owned the house knew everyone, Todd ended up frying about 15 turkeys that day.” Turkeys traveled to friends’ houses and boats, and a few even flew with friends to Panama.

Reneé and Todd took their new tradition home, and Thanksgiving now sees them pulling up chairs for friends and family around a fryer in their driveway. “Ten or 12 friends come over, and we sit around and socialize and watch the turkey fry,” Reneé says. “Todd’s got it down to a science.”

Todd’s secret, she says, is a mix of herbs and garlic that he injects into the turkey Thanksgiving morning, before frying it. (The frying itself takes about 12-15 minutes. Generally, fried turkeys are no more than 12 pounds; any bigger, and the oil will overflow in a standard-sized fryer.)

“We do both types [of turkey], deep-fried and traditional,” Reneé says. “But the deep-fried goes first, hands-down. It’s so moist and flavorful. It tastes kind of like a really yummy roasted chicken.”

Ruth Meric, a caterer at Jackson and Company, says her sister in Louisiana takes turkey frying to the next level. Every Thanksgiving, she hosts a bring-your-own-turkey frying party made extra festive with Bloody Marys, milk punches and cheese straws. Ruth’s sister doles out time slots and then tags every turkey that comes to the house with special metal tags that she etches with family names – nobody goes home with Butterball when they brought Mary’s Free-Range Heritage.

“She buys about 20 packs of all flavors of injections,” Ruth says of her sister. “People can pick their flavor when they get to her house, inject their turkey, and let it sit for a while, while they sit around and visit. It’s a fun way to see a lot of people Thanksgiving morning.”

In Houston, Karin and Gregg Donovan, a substitute teacher and IT portfolio manager, respectively, started an unexpected turkey-frying party tradition. Through their church, the couple signed up to be a host family for foreign-exchange students through the University of Houston’s International Friendship Program. They started in 2010 with three Chinese students.

“We were going to invite them over for Christmas dinner and thought it would be fun to have a turkey fry on Christmas Eve,” Karin says. “We invited friends and asked them all to bring a traditional American side dish so that the Chinese exchange students would go home with a turkey and some traditional holiday sides.

“We emailed invitations and included instructions on frying a turkey – what you’ll need, ingredients, injection-sauce instructions.” What ensued was two fryers set up in the Donovans’ back yard, about 15 families, each of whom brought their own turkeys to fry, and sides – green beans, pecan pies – for the exchange students to take home for their own Christmas Day celebration.

“When we invited [the exchange students and their families] to come to a turkey fry, they had absolutely no idea what we were talking about,” Karin says. “At the party they were looking at us like we were crazy people sticking [what looked like] gigantic chickens into giant vats of oil.”

At the party’s end, Karin’s husband Gregg thought to use the hot, leftover oil to fry Oreos, Twix and Snickers bars. Dredging the sweets through funnel cake batter and into and out of the oil proved tricky. “The Chinese students were looking at him not saying a word, and then finally they said, ‘Chopsticks would really come in handy here.’” Karin pulled some out of the kitchen, and the students “went to town with it. From then on we’ve always done it with chopsticks.”

Every year since, the Donovans have hosted a Christmas Eve turkey-frying party including new Chinese exchange students each year. The students have become part of the Donovans’ extended family (the family recently visited their exchange students in China), and an unexpected tradition continues.

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