Food historians agree that deep-fried turkeys trace their roots to bayou Louisiana/Texas cuisine although no exact year, restaurant, or person is connected to this particular food by primary documentation.
There is no mention of fried turkey in Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes [New Orleans: 1885] or The Picayune Creole Cook Book, 2nd edition [New Orleans: 1901], but according to tradition fried turkeys were cooked outdoors for large popular events (family reunions, charity dinners, church suppers, etc.) in the early years of the twentieth century. About twenty years ago fried turkeys received national press and caught the attention of mainstream America. This recipe migrated from Louisiana/Texas to Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia (peanut oil), then up the eastern seaboard to D.C. before it took a drastic turn northwesterly to Seattle and Vancouver. Most articles written in the last couple of years simply reference fried turkey as a tasty alternative to the traditional holiday roast, usually with some sort of vague warning about frying anything that size inside the home.
Paul Prudhomme includes a recipe for “Cajun Fried Turkey (D’inde Frite) in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook: Old-Time Louisiana Recipes [William Morrow:New York] 1987 (p. 105- 109)
“Fried turkey has been all the rage at least for the last decade in New Orleans, and long before that it was a tradition in the bayou and throughout the South. Like many a vainglorious culinary mania before it, the national renown of fried turkeys can be traced directly to Martha Stewart, who plucked them from regional obscurity and put them in her magazine in 1996. “—It’s Treacherous, But Oh So Tasty; Fried-Turkey Fans Take the Risk, Annie Gowen, Washington Post, November 22, 2001 (p. B1)
“Frying whole turkeys is sort of the Southern version of making fondue. You have a lot of your friends over, you poke around in a pot of hot oil with some sticks, and then you pull out your dinner. Justin Wilson, he of Cajun fame, recalls first seeing a turkey fry in Louisiana in the 1930s.”—Something Different: Deep-Fried Turkey, Beverly Bundy, St. Louis Dispatch, November 24, 1997 (Food p. 4)
“A longtime food favorite in the southern United States, the delicious deep-fried turkey has quickly grown in popularity thanks to celebrity chefs such as Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse. While some people rave about this tasty creation, Underwriters Laboratories Inc.’s (UL) safety experts are concerned that backyard chefs may be sacrificing safety for good taste. “We’re worried by the increasing reports of fires related with turkey fryer use,” says John Drengenberg, UL consumer affairs manager. “Based on our test findings, the fryers used to produce those great-tasting birds are not worth the risks. And, as a result of these tests, UL has decided not to certify any turkey fryers with our trusted UL Mark.”—Deep-Frying That Turkey Could Land You in Hot Water; UL Warns Against Turkey Fryer Use, PR Newswire, June 27, 2002