Grilling your Thanksgiving dinosaur: live-blogging the bird

November 26, 2009

Trying two new things this morning: grilling a turkey, and live-blogging on SV-POW!

I like to grill. Steak, chicken, kebabs, yams, pineapple, bananas–as long as it’s an edible solid, I’m up for it. But I’ve never grilled a turkey before. Neighbor, colleague, fellow paleontologist and grillmeister Brian Kraatz sent me his recipe, which is also posted on Facebook for the edification of the masses. See Brian’s excellent writeup for the whole process, I’m just going to hit the photogenic parts here. Oh, and usually I tweak any photos I post within an inch of their lives, but I don’t have time for that this morning, so you’re getting as close to a live, unedited feed as I can manage. Stay tuned for updates.

Enough of that. Let’s rock!

The process starts  more than a day in advance, with the brine. Salt water, fruit, onions, garlic, spices, and some apple juice.

The turkey needs to be entirely immersed in the brine for at least 24 hours. Doing this in a solid container would require an extra big container and too much  liquid to cover the bird. I follow Brian’s method of brining in a triple-layer of trash bags. You can see a turkey roaster peeking out underneath the trash bags. Helps with the carrying.

Put the turkey in the trash bags first, then pour in the brine. Unless you like huge messes.

The genius of the trash bag method on display. You can squeeze out all the air so that the volume of the bag is equal to just the turkey and the brine.

Into the fridge for a day.

First thing this morning: out come the giblets, and save the goodies from the brine. We’ll get back to the neck later.

The bird awaits.

Crucial step: putting in a drip pan. Keeps the coals off to the side for indirect heat, and catches the grease so you don’t burn down the neighborhood.

Putting in the herb butter. I used three short sticks of butter mixed with sage, lemon pepper, and Mrs. Dash. Working the skin away from the meat and then filling the space with butter was extremely nasty. This must be what diverticula feel like.

A chimney is helpful to get the coals going.

To eat is human; to grill is divine.

Smoke bombs: mesquite chips soaked in water, wrapped up in balls of tinfoil, with holes poked on top to let the smoke out.

Fruit and spices into the body cavity.

At this point, I was fairly certain that today would be the greatest day of my life. The turkey is centered over the drip pan, stuffed with goodness, subcutaneously loaded with herb butter, draped with bacon. You can see one of the smoke bombs sitting right on top of the coals.

Know what you’re getting into. This 15 lb bird just barely cleared the lid of my grill.

A little over an hour in. I installed foil heat shields to keep the wings and thighs from cooking too fast. It’s all about the indirect heat. Some of the bacon comes off now, as a mid-morning treat.

Okay, the bird is about halfway done, and I have to whip up some sustainer coals and another batch of smoke bombs. Further updates as and when. Happy Thanksgiving!


I was hoping to get some more pictures posted before we ate, but you know how it is in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day (or, if you’re not an American, maybe you don’t know, so I’ll tell you: dogs and cats living together, we’re talking total chaos).

The turkey just before I pulled it off the grill. The heat shields turned out to be clutch, I would have completely destroyed the limbs without them. That’s going to be SOP from now on.

Ah yes, the bird, she turned out even more succulent than I hadda expected. Check out the pink shade of the meat just below the skin. I recognize that, from good barbeque, but I’ve never produced it before.

That’s it for the cooking part of today’s program. As for the ultimate fate of the bird…we ate a stupifying amount of it. I sent even more home with our guests. And the other half–yes, half–of this thunder beast is sitting in the fridge. Hello-o leftovers!

And hello-o science!

I was going to post some more pictures of the neck, but I didn’t get around to eating it, so…another time, perhaps. (UPDATE: it only took me 9 years and 1 month, go here and here.) In lieu, here’s Mike’s turkey vertebra in left lateral view (see the original in all its supersized glory here). Note the pneumatic foramen in the lateral wall of the centrum, just behind the cervical rib loop. This is actually kind of a lucky catch; a lot of times with chickens and turkeys, the pneumatic foramina are so far up in the cervical rib loop that they can’t be seen in lateral view.

It used to freak me out a little bit that birds often don’t have their pneumatic foramina in the middle of the lateral wall of the centrum, like sauropods. But a possible explanation occurred to me just this morning as I was planning this post. I think that birds have their pneumatic foramina right where you’d expect them, based on sauropods. I’ll explain why.

The first part of the explanation is that instead of wearing their pneumatic cavities on the outside, like this Giraffatitan cervical, bird vertebrae tend to be inflated from within, with just a few tiny foramina outside. The second part is that birds have HUGE cervical rib loops compared to sauropods. If the sauropod vert shown above had its rib on, the resulting loop would be fairly dainty, the osteological equivalent of a bracelet. The cervical rib loops of birds are more like tubes, they’re so antero-posteriorly elongated.

So take the brachiosaur cervical shown above and shrink all of the external pneumatic spaces by several inches. The cavities on the arch and spine would close up entirely, and the complex of fossae and foramina on the lateral side of the centrum would be reduced to a small hole right behind the cervical rib. Then stretch out the cervical rib loop in the fore-aft direction and voila, you’d have something like a turkey cervical, with a little tiny pneumatic foramen tucked up inside the cervical rib loop.

This doesn’t explain why bird verts are inflated from within instead of being eroded from without, or why sauropods had such dinky cervical rib loops (mechanical what, now?), or why pneumatic diverticula tend to make the biggest holes in the front half of the centrum, adjacent to the cervical ribs. I just think that maybe bird and sauropod pneumaticity are not as different as they  appear at first glance. Your thoughts are welcome.

18 Responses to “Grilling your Thanksgiving dinosaur: live-blogging the bird”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    Waiting to see those cervical, Wedel …

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, I was certainly right to doubt that you would show me any hot turkey-cervical goodness that I hadn’t seen before — no, that I hadn’t made before. I think feeding my own cervical back to me scores extremely high on the lamometer. But then you did pull it out of the fire somewhat with the turkey/Giraffatitan comparison at the end so I’ll let it slide for now.

    In other news, I defleshed my wallaby tail tonight.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    Dude, take it as a compliment. Your turkey cervical just happened to show the feature of interest.

    Anyway, you’re just jealous that you don’t have a four-day weekend dedicated to rampant, howling gluttony. I think I might have ruptured something internally at lunch. Gonna try to sleep it off.

    All right, callers. Phone lines are open!

  4. Nima Says:

    I never noticed how similar they are before!

    Sauropod vertebrae just look so much more…. sculpted. I’d figure that those stinkin’ theropods may provide a clue somewhere, seeing as they’re closer to birds… when their bones got pneumatized from within, did this include respiratory air sacs IN the bone, or was it just to lighten the weight?

    What’s interesting is that at first glance, the turkey cervical looks solid, like something from a titanosaur.

    Could it be that titanosaur verts are also “hollow from the inside”?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, titanosaur vertebrae are indeed bird-like in that they have many internal air-spaces rather than externally sculpted texture like that of brachiosaurs. They are often described as “inflated”.

  6. Cary Woodruff Says:

    Bacon and sauropod verts….could there be a better combination?

  7. Nathan Myers Says:

    If sauropods were wrapped in bacon like that, that would explain why they went extinct once T. rex showed up.

  8. Andreas Johansson Says:

    What is it with this gluttony-masochism? Every American online seems to have spent the last few days bragging about how they stuffed themselves to breaking point for Thanksgiving.

  9. Graham King Says:

    Andreas Johansson wrote:

    What is it with this gluttony-masochism? Every American online seems to have spent the last few days bragging about how they stuffed themselves to breaking point for Thanksgiving.

    Like this?

  10. Andreas Johansson Says:

    I don’t think that particular American is bragging about its gluttony.

  11. […] small air spaces. This inflated-looking morphology is very similar to that seen in birds, like the turkey we recently discussed. The fossae and foramina on the outside tend to be smaller and more numerous […]

  12. […] on this vertebra with the internal air cells exposed in the cross-sectioned rhea neck. I have argued here before that sauropod cervical vertebrae are pretty similar to those of birds; the main differences are […]

  13. Enjoyed your post. I’ve done brining for a number of years, but always did it in a cooler. I’m looking forward to trying your garbage bag idea instead. Much cleaner and easier. I shared your post on my website in a post that I just wrote on how to grill a turkey.

  14. […] consist of pneumatic foramina set inside larger pneumatic fossae (see, for example, this, from here). Similarly, the bony nares of sauropods can be thought of as pneumatic foramina set at the […]

  15. […] saurischians–see Bibi et al. 2006.) My own adventures in turkey grilling are chronicled in this post, which will show you the steps to attaining enlightenment, or at least a larger […]

  16. […] Turkey.  Scattered throughout are several of Juancho’s BBQ Tips with lots of useful advice.Grilling your Thanksgiving dinosaur: live-blogging the bird tells you how to brine your turkey in a trash bag and grill a turkey with briquettes.  There's […]

  17. […] did the same brining and smoking routine that I did for my first smoked turkey back when–see this post for […]

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