When you wander into a fast-food restaurant on a major family holiday, levity is never on the menu.
Christmas music -- and isn't it always Christmas music? -- blares in the background of a heartwrenching tableau of miserable souls alone, together. Glassy-eyed diners stare straight ahead and, invariably, chew with remarkable slowness. There's obviously nowhere to be. So what's the hurry?
At area KFCs on Thanksgiving Day, however, a remarkably different scene unfolds. Patrons, many of them assembled in familial units and bedecked in their finery, line up to receive what must be the most expensive fast-food item in the realm -- at least until the dawn of the McTruffle. KFC workers arrive in the wee hours to stoke the fires and begin mass-producing this once-a-year delicacy with factory-line efficiency.
We're talking, of course, about the KFC "Cajun Deep-Fried Turkey," yours for $59.99 solo or $79.99 with a mess of fixings on the side (gravy counts as a "fixing," just so you know).
Belying the notion of "fast food," these turkeys require at least a 24-hour advance order and pre-payment. Customers then make an appointment for when they'll pick up their Thanksgiving centerpiece.
Come Nov. 28, the city's participating KFCs will shift the bulk of their frying firepower to turkey meat. Restaurants featuring four Winston Collectramatic PF56 C model fryers will devote just one to the "C" in KFC, turning over the other three to T.
Frying a turkey, attests Nick Singh, is a labor-intensive process. The fowl, which arrive four-to-a-pack and pre-injected with "Cajun sauce" from KFC's regional warehouse, are supposed to vary from 12 to 14 pounds. "But they never are," says Singh, the manager of KFC's Mission and Silver location. Rather, they're usually 14 to 16 pounds, adding time -- and guesswork -- to the minimum 35-minute frying time. That means Singh -- who clocks in at 5 a.m. and boasts that "every turkey here will be personally cooked by me" -- must repeatedly remove the sizzling bird from the PF56 C, gauge its temperature, and then drop it back into the oil.
But his pain is your gain -- them turkeys is big.
Every year, Singh's KFC moves at least 100 fried turkeys. Other city KFCs are stocked up with between 24 and 60 birds from the warehouse, depending on their capacity to fry turkeys and accommodate burgeoning hordes of customers waiting on a larger-than-advertised bird to fully fry before speeding off to Grandma's house.
"Have you seen my store?" asks Douglas Speigel, the manager of the Duboce and Guerrero KFC. "We're narrow. That's why I only ordered 24."
Speigel says that one benefit of ordering a KFC turkey is that, "On Thanksgiving, all of our oil is fresh." He pauses for a moment. "Not that it isn't that way every day." Another pause. Look, the point he's trying to make is that there will be no commingling of chicken oil and turkey oil on Thanksgiving or any other day.
Every Thanksgiving, tales of inept turkey-frying families landing themselves in the hospital and burning down large swaths of Appalachia traverse the Internet. For this reason, KFC's 80-dollar dinner is, potentially, both a time- and a lifesaver. Just what makes it "Cajun," however, is hard to pin down; it's difficult to burn a fried turkey. The contents of the "Cajun sauce," while not guarded with the fervor of the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices, are not known to even 20-year KFC personnel we spoke with. In the end, the best Cajun qualifier we could elicit is "it's got a little kick to it."
Singh, who professes blissful ignorance of the contents of the Cajun birds he fries, is more than just a turkey purveyor. He's also a satisfied customer. "For the last three or four years, I've ordered two turkeys for myself," confesses the Lincoln High alum. "My mom insists on saving one for her to have with the whole family. Then I have one with my family."
It sounds like too much food. But, on the holidays, too much is never enough.
"Not with my family," he says.