Smoke Signals: Give your turkey the barbecue treatment

I first tasted a smoked turkey about the time I first heard of a smoked turkey. It was the mid-1970s. I had recently moved from the North, where they didn’t smoke meats much, to Austin, where they smoked pretty much everything.

Fact is, I really didn’t understand the hubbub over the whole smoking thing at first. A lot of the barbecue I ate was bland or rubbery or dry. Then I found the dives, the dangerous after-hours joints with holes in their door screens and grease as thick as paint on their calendar-and-business-card-covered walls. I also found nirvana on a plastic foam plate.

One of those places was a joint on the east side of Austin called 3-M BBQ & Catering. The proprietor was named Mitchell Mays, and, the story goes, the 3 M’s were his first name, his last name and his wife’s name, Marie.

I didn’t spend a lot of time there, but my friend Chuck Harris did. A white kid in his mid-20s from the New York City suburbs, Harris formed an unlikely lifelong relationship with Mays, a 60-something black man from Texas.

One November evening in his first year in Austin, Harris went around to 3-M and found Mays tending a big bird on the pit. Harris asked Mays what he was doing. “Smoking a turkey,” Mays replied.

“I never heard of smoking turkeys,” Harris replied. “Put me down for one.”

Harris, his girlfriend and some of their friends celebrated Thanksgiving with the turkey that Mays had smoked. “It was just amazing,” Harris recalled. “I never had anything like it.”

For years after, Harris’s Thanksgiving turkey was smoked, always by Mays. When Harris moved back to New York in the early 1980s to pursue a career in acting, he even had Mays ship him a smoked turkey.

Somewhere along the line, I became friends with Harris. On his second or third Thanksgiving in Austin, I had dinner at his house and tasted the smoked turkey. The gorgeous mahogany skin and the light woodsy flavor of the juicy meat transformed the bird from its oven-baked so-so-ness to something sublime — reminiscent, if I may wax rhapsodic, of an original, wild self.

I vowed to learn how to do it.

At first, I used a bullet-shaped smoker with a water pan and wood chunks. The moisture within the smoker helped create a juicy bird. But the skin wasn’t as crisp as I wanted.

I began experimenting.

One year, I draped raw slices of bacon over the bird, thinking the bacon would smoke till done and the drippings, meanwhile, would seep into the turkey. How could that be bad? Well, it was. The bacon didn’t cook. And the turkey skin was as pale as an Irish barfly’s.

Another year, I tried stuffing it, but the smoke overwhelmed the bread dressing. It tasted like what I imagine charred, wet sawdust tastes like after a house fire.

Eventually, I bought an offset wood-fueled smoker and gave it a go, this time naked: no bacon. No stuffing. Just bird. Well, bird smeared with butter and seasonings.


The dry heat of the indirect fire, its smoke drifting lazily over the bird, did what only barbecuing can do. It transformed the meat into a thing of succulent wonder — and with lightly crisped skin, to boot. Since then, I’ve learned along with everybody else about brining, which makes even the white meat impossibly tender and juicy.

And what I realized is that, while not Mitchell Mays’s recipe, my smoked turkey — slow-smoked over indirect heat — is a legacy of Mitchell Mays’s style.

Mays died in July. Harris, who works in New York as a movie producer and kept up a correspondence with Mays all these years, says he thinks of him every Thanksgiving.

This year, I will, too.


Bourbon-Brined Smoked Turkey