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Talkin' turkey legs: the most popular street festival food of all time

Turkey legs: Yay or Nay?
Posted 7:53am on Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012

It's a spring sight as familiar to North Texans as bluebonnets or temperamental weather:

A guy at a street fest, happily gnawing on a giant turkey leg like a hungry coyote. A waifish woman sharing one with her BFF. Or a child, holding the leg aloft, like a tiny caveman.

Yes, everywhere we turn, we see the forearm-sized festival snack that rules over spring like a salty scepter.

Giant turkey legs made the scene last weekend at Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival in Fort Worth, at Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie, at Warrior Dash in Roanoke and, in a couple of weeks, they'll strut their stuff at Mayfest. You see them at ethnically oriented events such as the North Texas Irish Festival and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

A little Googling reveals that festivals in New York, San Francisco and Seattle (which Travel + Leisure magazine recently named the Best City for Hipsters) ain't too proud to leg, either. Search "giant turkey legs" on Flickr, and you'll find thousands of carnivores smiling for the cameras with their meat popsicles.

And unlike the more genteel and romanticized version of the Thanksgiving turkey, these honking big legs can't be contained to just one season. You'll find them year-round at theme parks like Disney World, which sells 1.8 million of them a year, and of course, at the Texas State Fair in the fall.

There are other beloved festival staples -- all hail the funnel cake -- but none has captured our imagination like the giant turkey leg.

Part of the appeal is its carnival-like persona.

"I think it gives you that sense that you're at something that's fun," says Justin Cork, one of the turkey-leg wielders we stopped at the Main St. fest. "As a kid growing up, you'd always think of the fair and turkey legs."

Part of it is economics. These things are big enough to share.

"This is for both of us," says Cork, who lives in Burleson and was attending the Main St. fest with his wife. "I'm a cheap guy, so I got us a $9 turkey leg for dinner. I coulda went down to Del Frisco's, but I saw the menu, and it was a little higher than I wanted."

Some people even point to nutrition as a reason to tear into a turkey leg.

"I'm a nutritionist," says Jordan Robinson, who's also a certified personal trainer. "And of the options, this has the most protein. If I was to get like french fries -- no way -- fried corn, beef ribs, all those are very fatty. This has the highest quality of protein." (True, but we should also point out that most festival legs top 1,400 calories and 60 grams of fat each.)

The most undeniable part of chomping on a turkey leg, however, is primal. It unleashes your inner Cro-Magnon.

"I think it's the carnivore holding it," says Joe Riscky of Riscky's Bar-B-Q, which had one of the two turkey-leg concessions at Main St. (and sold some legs that were upward of 2 pounds each).

But the turkey-leg phenomenon was around well before the spring festival (the legs made their first appearance at Main St. in 1986.) You can trace it back to medieval times -- not the national dinner-theater chain with a location in Dallas (they serve roasted chicken), but the actual medieval times.

A succulent history

According to some paintings, one of the earliest turkey-leg wielders was Henry VIII, the corpulent 16th-century British king, who is sometimes depicted holding or chomping on a turkey leg. Some observers believe this is an anachronism and that the bird, which was native to the New World (and some sources disagree about that), didn't make it to England till after Henry's death in 1547.

But Bill Teel, an instructor in a class called History of Customs and Manners at Scarborough Renaissance Festival -- where turkey legs have been sold since it began in 1980 -- says that the turkey leg is appropriate to the Renaissance and to Henry's time.

"[Turkeys] were first brought to and eaten by the court in 1524," says Teel. "They were served at a feast, and they had been supplied by, I believe, the Spanish ambassador. Henry liked them a lot, and they became very popular. There were flocks that were domesticated that were kept by the court."

Naturally, it took a while for the whole turkey thing to reach the peasants. Teel says Robert Strickland, a navigator who had sailed with explorer Sebastian Cabot, introduced turkeys to the general populace in Yorkshire around 1542. And the root of turkey legs as a street-fest food might lie in that introduction.

"I certainly know that the idea of selling bird legs existed in the fairs of the period," Teel says. "The breast of the bird and things of that nature were often considered to be the best cuts. Those were often served to visiting nobility, the upper gentry, those people. The legs were left over and served to the people who were enjoying the fair by street vendors."

The hoi polloi wasn't eating the monster bird legs we see now, however.

"If you ever had an opportunity, even today, to eat a wild turkey, the birds are much smaller than domesticated turkeys, and they're not bred for size. And there's a different flavor to them because they're wild birds. I'm sure it was the same way back then."

Teel had a little harder time explaining the modern popularity of bird legs. He's 50, and he says he remembers seeing turkey legs at every fest or fair he has visited. "They've just always been there. I don't know what their popularity is, other than they're just a big thing you can eat with your hands.... They are messy, but you literally don't have to have a plate or a fork or anything."

So there's that history lesson. The modern history is much more nebulous.

They're fair game

At the State Fair of Texas, turkey legs have a richer history than fried food.

"The concession selling turkey legs out there was started by Hans Mueller, who specialized in German cold cuts and sausages," says Tino Sosa, whose mother, Brigitte Sosa, worked with Mueller. "From what I understand, the first concession strictly selling turkey legs out there that he started was toward the late '70s -- the 1977-'78 time frame."

The Sosa family is among nine vendors that sell turkey legs at the State Fair, ranging in size from 24 ounces to the Sosas' 32-ounce legs.

Tino, who has worked with his mom selling the legs, echoes Joe Riscky's remarks when asked why the turkey legs are so popular, and he elaborates a bit. Part of it is flavor -- different vendors prepare their legs with different spices and techniques. And then there's the yeaarrgh factor.

"Our banner says, 'Texas-size smoked turkey legs,' and they are huge," Sosa says. "I grew up watching The Flintstones, so there's that image of Fred Flintstone and Barney chomping on a brontosaurus leg. I think a lot of people are hopping on that image of medieval days or of cavemen chomping on this huge leg of whatever animal they've just killed."

Sosa says that men who buy the legs (and it's not just men who buy them) often immediately have their wives or girlfriends take a picture of them biting into the legs. "There's an appeal of, 'Hey, look at this huge piece of meat than I'm just about to try to devour!,'" Sosa says.

All hail Minnesota?

But have people been trying to devour turkey legs at other festivals before the possible State Fair of Texas start date? Our turkey-leg search led us to Yoakum Packing Co. in Yoakum, which is roughly halfway between San Antonio and Houston. Along with nearby Eddy Packing, Yoakum Packing is one of the biggest providers of turkey legs to festivals, fairs and theme parks. The company not only has its own concession at the State Fair of Texas, it also supplies other booths as well.

So it seemed like a good place to ask about the turkey leg's street-food history.

"The first smoked turkey legs we did were probably in the early '80s, at least," says Glen Kusak, president of Yoakum Packing. "It could have possibly been in the late '70s. They were for a gentleman that moved here and was a concessionaire at the Minnesota Renaissance." Kusak adds that the Minnesota State Fair is one of the top food events in the nation, and he suspects that turkey legs may have gotten their modern start either at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival or the Minnesota State Fair.

As it turns out, there is a bit of a turkey rivalry between Cuero, a town less than 20 miles south of Yoakum, and Worthington, Minn., both of which have annual turkey festivals -- and an annual Great Gobbler Gallop race between Worthington's turkey, Paycheck, and Cuero's Ruby Begonia (the birds change, but the names remain the same).

So it seemed possible that Minnesota might have a claim to be a turkey-leg epicenter. But Bonnie Bartyzal, director of operations at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, couldn't tell us just how long the fest has sold the legs.But one thing is indisputable. The turkey-leg phenomenon is more popular than ever in North Texas.

"It seems like every year they just get more and more popular," says Riscky's catering manager Ray Schneider, who sells anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 legs at Mayfest. "When we first started, we sold quite a few, but now it seems like we're cooking all day just to keep up with 'em. I don't know if people are just realizing that they're out there, or we're doing better advertising that they've got 'em." At this year's Main St. fest, the Riscky's booth sold about 3,500 legs; the other Main St. vendor, Leisure Foods of Fort Worth, sold about 1,400.

Schneider said it is also possible that they have become more popular because they have gotten bigger, a fact that Yoakum Packing's Kusak backs up.

"Years ago, the common size for a smoked turkey leg was a 1-pound drum. Now most of the big concessionaires are looking for a 2-pound drum," he says.

This has led to rumors that the legs aren't turkey legs at all but emu legs or ostrich legs. Kusak chuckles at that notion.

"They're not emu legs," he says. "But raising a turkey bigger makes processing fees less, because they can process a 40-pound turkey in the same amount of time that they can process a 30-pound turkey. So it just makes sense for the turkey processors to do a bigger bird."

Sharing the love

With turkey legs weighing 2 pounds and even more, we wondered -- even after a nutritionist testified in their favor -- just how healthful they are. Granted, a 2-pound piece of meat that could double as a weapon is big enough to share, and people do split the things. But maybe that's not enough sharing.

"By the time you get to 24 ounces ... that's a little over 1,400 calories with 68 grams of fat, which is significant," says Gina Hill, a registered dietitian and an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Christian University. "If you're talking about more like a standard serving size, like a 3.5-ounce portion of turkey, even with the skin on, that's a little more like 200 calories and 10 grams of fat. So it would just be a matter of sharing it with someone. Sharing it with several people, actually."

Six people wouldn't be a bad idea, she says.

When we said we'd heard of 2.5 pound legs, she was a little taken aback.

"That's enormous. I can't even imagine carrying that thing around. You'd look like a caveman."

To be sure, giant turkey legs do have their detractors, and we're not talking about just vegans and vegetarians, but omnivores with more common sense than we have. (Yes, a turkey leg was consumed as "research.")

Turkey legs rank high in an Art Fair Insiders.com blog post titled "Worst Art Fair Food." And this was from the perspective of people who don't necessarily even eat the greasy, messy legs -- but have to worry about its greasiness and the messiness.

"A glass-blower friend of mine told me that someone in his booth was using one as a pointer and actually touched the glass piece with the turkey leg," says the lead post. "I always live it fear that someone who just finished eating one ends up touching my work with greasy fingers. Yuck!!"

But when turkey legs have reached such a popularity point that Food Network has done multiple features on them, that Disney World sells 1.8 million a year, and that Parks & Recreation can have a gag about a bacon-wrapped turkey leg called "The Swanson," in honor of meat-loving character Ron Swanson ... well, turkey legs are likely to be with us, like them or not. So dig in, and don't forget to use a napkin before you touch someone's artwork.

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