Food

Love That Turkey From Popeyes

How does a fast-food Thanksgiving compare with a home-cooked one?

At left: A Popeyes turkey in its wrap. At right: A Bojangles’ turkey in its box.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Justin Peters.

Every year on Thanksgiving morning, millions of Americans wake up, head to the kitchen, and proceed to spend the day pretending they know how to cook a turkey. Like most of the myths Americans tell about themselves, this one is a toxic lie.

OK, maybe I’m projecting. I’m a horrible cook even by Thanksgiving standards, and thus it’s no surprise that the few turkeys I’ve prepared in my day have inevitably turned out dry and bland and tasteless. Roasting them is a daylong chore. Carving them is a stress-inducing nightmare. Getting them to taste good requires elaborate brining and rubbing techniques for which I have neither the aptitude nor the patience. More than once while preparing a turkey, I’ve mulled scrapping the entire project and heading out for fast food.

For decades, America’s fast-food restaurants have been picking up the slack for cooking idiots like me. Now, some of them have taken it upon themselves to save the day for Thanksgiving idiots like you. At least two fried chicken chains—Popeyes and Bojangles’—are offering whole turkeys for sale this holiday season: fried, Cajun-spiced, 10-to-15 pounders that promise to put the flavor back into Thanksgiving. (As we all learned in school, “Thanksflavorgiving” was the initial Pilgrim term for the holiday.)

You are probably skeptical, and I understand why. Eating fast food on Thanksgiving sounds like the behavior of a noir protagonist, or a Chris Ware character. But given that shame and memorable culinary experiences go together like peanut butter and bananas, why not cast my lot with the nation’s leading purveyors of fried goodness?

Over the weekend, I purchased, cooked, and (partially) ate two 12-pound-ish turkeys from Popeyes and Bojangles’, judging them each on appearance, ease of use, taste, and the all-important “intangibles.” Friends, I am here to tell you there is nothing more American than buying your holiday bird from a fast-food chicken place. These were two of the best Thanksgiving turkeys I’ve ever had—though this isn’t saying very much, since most Thanksgiving turkeys are disgusting—and I wouldn’t hesitate to cook and eat them again.

A prefatory note: I confess that I didn’t realize that I would have to do some work to prepare these turkeys. I’d assumed that they would come hot from the fryer like everything else I’ve ever eaten at Popeyes and Bojangles’, and that I would be able to snap off a leg and start eating right away. Not so. You need to have a working oven to enjoy these birds.

Bojangles’ Deep-Fried Cajun Turkey

Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits is a regionally famous fast-food chain that’s known for its chicken and biscuits and has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly named Jerry Jeff Walker song. I called the chain’s sole Washington location last week to confirm that it had turkeys for sale. When the answer was “yes,” I jumped so high, I jumped so high, and then I lightly touched down and headed to the Bojangles’ outlet in the basement food court of D.C.’s Union Station.

When I arrived, the guy asked whether I wanted a frozen or thawed bird. I chose the latter, and he hauled one out of the cooler and presented it for my examination. It certainly looked like a turkey, albeit one that had been vacuum-sealed in clear plastic. The Bojangles’ rep assured me I needn’t worry about undercooking the turkey, since it had already been both roasted and fried, and that while the instructions specified reheating the bird until it reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, I would be fine as long as the bird was thoroughly hot. He packed the turkey into a big yellow cardboard box and sent me on my way.

Appearance (1 out of 3): The Bojangles’ turkey did not initially look great. It had a wan yellowish tinge, as if it were suffering from a Victorian-era disease. This coloring, I eventually realized, was a product of the deep-frying process. Take note: A fast-food deep-fried turkey bears scant resemblance to a piece of fried chicken—there’s no breading, no flaky skin. I will confess that I found this disappointing. (In fairness, I find it disappointing when any object doesn’t resemble fried chicken.)

A yellowish turkey in a foil roasting pan.
A truly forlorn turkey, courtesy of Bojangles’.
Justin Peters

The bird didn’t look much better after it was finished cooking. When I took it out of the oven, it had none of the attractive browning you’d typically associate with a roasted turkey. Moreover, whereas your typical turkey will secrete juices throughout the cooking process, the Bojangles’ turkey barely emitted any fluids at all—about 10 ounces of drippings after three hours’ worth of cooking. If you are the sort of Thanksgiving host who prioritizes the big reveal of the finished bird—the turkey-as-visual-art sort of person—then Bojangles’ fried turkey is not for you.

A more cooked but still yellowish turkey in a foil roasting pan.
The meat thermometer reads 145 degrees.
Justin Peters

Ease of use (3 out of 3): This turkey was very easy to cook. All I had to do was slide it into a roasting pan, pour a half cup of water into the pan, cover the whole thing with aluminum foil, and check back in two hours to see if it had reached the appropriate internal temperature. I’m sorry to say it never reached 165 degrees, and after three hours of checking I decided to stop caring about food safety and just get to eating. I’m still here to tell the tale, which either means I didn’t die or that the ghost me has access to Slate’s content management system.

I am very bad at carving turkeys, and that held true when it came time to carve this one. It didn’t really matter, though, as the fact that the turkey had been precooked and fried meant the leg and thigh meat pulled off the bone with little effort. Minimizing effort is what a fast-food Thanksgiving is all about. Thanks, Bojangles’!

Taste (2 out of 3): Even though it looked gross, this turkey wasn’t half bad. Although it was a little dry in parts, this was likely a product of me keeping it in the oven 45 minutes too long in my ultimately fruitless quest to attain that 165-degree internal temperature. Mostly, though, it was flavorful and moist and savory. Bojangles’ secret weapon: The turkey’s insides were flecked throughout with orange “Cajun spices” that I initially mistook for blood or some other natural byproduct of inept cooking. But, no, it was pure Cajun flavoring, and these “flavor crystals,” as I came to call them, delivered a real gustatory punch.

Intangibles (1 out of 1): The Bojangles’ carrying case was sturdy and stylish, and if I ever fall upon hard times, I will not hesitate to use it as a suitcase.

Final score: 7 out of 10

Popeyes Fully Cooked Cajun-Style Turkey

The Popeyes turkey I picked up last Wednesday night was a plastic-wrapped, deep-frozen behemoth that, I was informed, would take a full four days to defrost. I begrudgingly toted it home, put it into the refrigerator, and began the waiting game. Four days later, the bird had indeed sufficiently thawed to the point where I could cook it. Popeyes tells the truth.

Appearance (2 out of 3): The Popeyes turkey did not appear to be suffering from liver disease, which meant it looked and smelled better than the Bojangles’ bird. On the other hand, the turkey’s exterior had been rubbed with the Popeyes version of Cajun spices—these were red rather than orange—which sort of made it look like it had been dragged through the infield at a baseball diamond. While I love baseball, I don’t want to eat an infield for Thanksgiving. (Also: This was a big bird, and it hurt my arms to hold it up for an extended period of time. To be fair, I am a very weak person.)

A turkey covered in red-ish seasoning in a foil roasting pan.
This turkey just stole second base.
Justin Peters

The Popeyes turkey looked much, much better after it came out of the oven, as if it had been rubbed with magical dirt from that baseball diamond from Field of Dreams. (I mean that as a compliment.) Unlike the Bojangles’ turkey, which appeared to be miraculously unscathed by the cooking process, the Popeyes one blossomed during its 2½ hours under the ol’ heat coils. It was brown and crisp and Cajun-rubbed, a feast you could proudly unveil to your waiting family rather than one you’d choose to carve in a dark room. I felt proud of my culinary accomplishment, even though all I had done was unwrap the turkey and avoid dropping it on the floor.

A golden-brown turkey in a foil roasting pan.
The Popeyes turkey in full bloom.
Justin Peters

Ease of use (2.5 out of 3): The Popeyes turkey, just like the one I got from Bojangles’, was very easy to cook, though I am docking Popeyes a half point for the four days’ worth of defrosting. Once the bird was thawed, though, the cooking process—who am I kidding, this was really just a reheating process—could not have been easier. The internal wrapper already contained sufficient fat and juices to cover the bottom of the roasting pan, and I didn’t need to cover anything with foil. All I had to do was get the bird’s internal temperature up to 140 degrees, not 165. The meat fell off the bone when I carved it. Even the bones fell off the bone, more or less. This was a very tender turkey!

Taste (3 out of 3): This turkey tasted great! The wings looked so good that I couldn’t help myself from grabbing them off the bird and sucking out the meat as I was carving the rest of the turkey. The wings were crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, and the Cajun spices were present but not overpowering. “You gotta try this turkey!” I called out to my wife, who had fallen asleep hours earlier. (She did not wake up, which was her loss.) The breast meat was very moist, with the Cajun seasoning imparting a depth of flavor that I don’t typically get from my non-fast-food turkeys. There were no spice injections speckling the inside of the turkey, which was honestly for the best, as the Bojangles’ flavor crystals had been a bit disconcerting. Bonus: The Popeyes turkey tasted even better the next day.

Intangibles (1 out of 1): The plastic wrapper contained a simple recipe for Cajun pan gravy, which was a touch I appreciated. The gravy I made sucked, but that was my fault, not the wrapper’s. Like I said at the outset, I’m a horrible cook.

Final score: 8.5 out of 10

The Popeyes bird narrowly beats out the Bojangles’ bird, but, honestly, these were both good turkeys. If you’re bad at cooking, have access to an oven, and have a hankering for orange and/or red Cajun spices, you could do a whole lot worse. Pro tip, though: Don’t try to eat an entire fast-food turkey yourself. I made this mistake—thanks for nothing, my sleepy, turkey-disliking wife—and as a result my freezer is filled with six giant bags of leftover turkey. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet. I’ll be eating this stuff through New Year’s.