Smoking the Turkey

Wow! i have a tradition.

Actually, i have a bunch of traditions, some of them are closer to superstition, some are just to keep some folks happy, and a few, like this one, are mine, all mine.

The more i think about it, the more i like this tradition. It’s sort of in line with JB Leftwich, the Coach’s tradition. Every year about this time but just a tad later, Coach would write one of his weekly columns for The Lebanon Democrat about a fruit cake recipe. i think it was a fruit cake, and i’m pretty sure it was his mother’s, but i am too lazy to look it up this morning. But i like the idea of following in Coach’s footsteps. It’s hard to go wrong that way.

The below is from last year’s post. i should add i still cling to Mr. Dickel’s version of sour mash even though the Prichard brand with a distillery up in Kelso, Tennessee, must have some family connection. Both Jo Doris and Estelle carried the maiden name of Prichard, and it’s without the “t,” which makes them fairly unique. Someday, someday, i will find the Prichard family connection among the Leftwich’s, the Jewell’s, and  the distillery.

This, i think, is my new tradition.

i wrote this recipe (sic) in 1990. i now am the Turkey Smoking Go-To at the Jewell household whenever we have Thanksgiving here with more than two people (If it’s just Maureen and i we find a very nice restaurant usually without a turkey dinner).

i have published this a couple of times in The Democrat and posted it here several times. There is a more serious version with more exact directions, but i forget where it is every year and wing it. i was going to blow off putting it out in the newspaper or on the web this year, when Bill Goodner described how he smoked his turkey, i remembered turkey smoking being a JB Leftwich family Thanksgiving or Christmas tradition for Jim and Jack to smoke a turkey while tending to it with a Prichard whiskey in  hand (it used to be George Dickel, and i still stick to the Tullahoma brand). My brother-in-law Daniel Boggs and my nephew Bill Boase, pride themselves on technically correct smoking.

Well, i ain’t technical. i use an old Weber smoker, not as good as my smaller original like Jimmy Lynch used back when, but my smaller one rusted out about twenty years ago and you just can’t find them anymore. So now i add charcoal and chips throughout the process.

A couple of months ago, we got a new Komodo dragon grill…just kidding: it’s  a knock off of a “Big Green Egg” smoker Char-Griller dubbed the “King Griller Akorn Kamado Kooker” (“kamado” is the term used for a Japanese smoker, which looks like an egg). Therefore, i could become more technical. But i am a sentimentalist, and getting up in the wee hours of the morning to start the coals, top them with the soaked hickory chips (i tried mesquite chips once, but i’m from Tennessee: hickory chips are the only chips), put the turkey on the grill, pour the marinade from the bucket over the turkey and into the drip/water pan, and then tending to the fire and chips randomly and very carefully throughout the day gives me a sense of fulfillment.

i am learning the awesome powers of my Komodo dragon grill and have found grilling steaks, pork chops, etc. is great, and i plan to to expand to seafood, fish, and Cornish game hens in the near future, but i think i’ll stick to my old smoker for the turkey.

So Bill, i don’t think i can be of much help on electric smokers, but it i thought you might like this recipe. This year, there is no dog. When i put Lena, my last one down, i vowed not to have another dog until i was sure it would outlive me and put me down rather than vice versa. i still want to have a dog again, but not for helping me smoke a turkey.

Dec 10, 1990, 10:36 pm

SAN DIEGO—Holidays, except for the weather, are pretty much the same for me out here in the southwest corner or back in Tennessee. To start, no one will let me smoke the turkey.

When I was growing up in Lebanon, and every time I return there for a holiday, my mother cooks the turkey. When there are only a few of us there, she makes a chicken taste like a turkey. She roasts the turkey, or the chicken, in the oven, and it comes complete with dressing and gravy. When we have a holiday out here, my wife cooks the turkey the same way my mother cooks the turkey. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I volunteer to cook the turkey. Every year, whether in Tennessee or out here in the Southwest corner, whoever is in charge of turkeys says no. They profess to love the turkey the way I fix it, but they say another time would be better. They say they want a traditional turkey.

I picked up turkey cooking while I was spending some considerable time about two-thirds of the way between here in the southwest corner and Tennessee. The Colonel, grandfather of my oldest daughter, lived up in Paris, Texas, and he fed me my first smoked turkey. I loved it. Since then, I have modified his recipe somewhat and do cook one fine smoked turkey. Since I can’t have it out here or in Tennessee, I thought someone with fewer traditionalists in their immediate family might like to have the recipe to try for the holidays.

Smoking a Turkey


  1. This is fairly important to the success of the whole affair. Pick a good one. The critical part is to make sure it will fit in the smoker
  2. 1 container large enough to hold the turkey and cover it with the magic elixir. I’ve been known to use a plastic bucket, but sometimes the dog gets upset as we normally use it for his water dish. This is okay as long as we stay out of biting reach of the dog for two or three days.
  3. 1 smoker, probably any kind that claims to be a smoker and any number of possible jury rigs would work; however, if I were using a “Weber” or like vessel, I would make sure that there was extra water in the smoker).
  4. 1 bottle of beer. Beer in longnecks is preferable but one should not become too concerned about the type of beer as “Lone Star” is a bit too elegant for this type of cooking. Besides, we wouldn’t want to waste a beer worth drinking on some dumb turkey. If one is desperate and doesn’t mind subjecting oneself to abject humiliation, it is permissible to stoop to using a can of beer.
  5. 1\2 cup of Madeira. Again, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the quality of the wine, and in truth, any red wine is probably okay. However, I would stay away from “Night Train” wine as it has been known to eat through barbecue grills, smokers, and anything made of material weaker than that used in hulls of nuclear submarines.
  6. Angostura bitters
  7. Worcestershire sauce
  8. Chili powder
  9. Oregano
  10. Sage
  11. Honey
  12. Molasses
  13. Undoubtedly, there are numerous items that I have forgotten to list here, but that’s okay as it really depends on what your individual taste is — I don’t suggest substituting low fat milk for the beer, but most everything else is probably okay — and if it’s really important, I’ll realize I left it out when I get to the narrative of how to use all this stuff and include the forgotten ingredient there.


Thaw the turkey. Take all those weird things that they put in those plastic packages inside the turkey and cook them in a skillet without the plastic packages, turning them frequently. Then feed what you just cooked to the dog. It might placate him enough to keep him from biting you for taking away his water bucket. If there are traditionalists in the bunch, give the stuff to them rather than the dog and let them make gravy.

Put the turkey in large container. Pour beer and Madeira over turkey. If you have not allowed about 24 hours for the turkey to thaw or about 8-12 hours for marinating the turkey, call your invited guests and advise them that the celebration will be about two days later than indicated on the original invitation.

Sprinkle other ingredients over the turkey. Be plentiful. It’s almost impossible to get too much.

Crunch the garlic cloves I didn’t mention in the ingredients and add to the container. I normally use about four normal sized cloves for a normal sized turkey. Also add the previously omitted bay leaves, about 6-8 for that same normal sized bird.

Add enough water to cover the turkey although it probably wouldn’t be a disaster if a leg partially stuck out. Then put the container in a safe place, unless of course, you want the dog to be rapturously happy and not bite you until long after his teeth have fallen out.

Allow to sit undisturbed for 6-10 hours (longer is better and ten hours is not necessarily the upper limit but exceeding ten hours may have some impact on when you either eat or get tired of the turkey taking up all that safe space).

Put the turkey on smoker grill above water pan after lighting the charcoal (one or two coals burning well is the best condition for the charcoal) and placing soaked hickory chips, which I also forgot to mention, earlier on the charcoal — again, be plentiful — after soaking the chips for at least 30 minutes. Pour remaining magic elixir over the turkey into the water pan. Add as much water to the water pan as possible without overflowing and putting out the fire below. Cover. Do not touch. Do not look. Do not peek…unless it doesn’t start to smoke in about thirty minutes. Then peek. If it’s smoking, leave alone for at least six hours for a large normal sized turkey. It is almost impossible to overcook if you have added enough water at the outset. You should check and add water or charcoal throughout the process. I have found that mesquite charcoal is the best, as it burns hotter. Regular charcoal will do fine but will require more checking.

The secret to the whole process is to cook extremely slow, as slow as possible and still start the fire.

Serve turkey, preferably without the garlic cloves or bay leaves. Now is the time for “Night Train” wine or the good beer. Serve “Night Train” very cold as indicated on the label.

The turkey’s also good cold.

Shoot the dog.

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