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Smart Turkeys 'Pop' When They're Cooked

  • Ted Landphair

The heirs of the turkey farmer who perfected the spring-loaded plastic sensor, which signals when the bird is cooked, sell more than 100 million of the timers annually.

The heirs of the turkey farmer who perfected the spring-loaded plastic sensor, which signals when the bird is cooked, sell more than 100 million of the timers annually.

Spring-loaded plastic sensor signals when bird is done

You’ve heard of “smart phones,” but what about smart turkeys?

First of all, it’s a myth that turkeys are so dumb that they actually drown if they look upward with their beaks open during a rainstorm. In the wild, they’re fast, sociable and smart enough to hide from most humans.

But the really smart turkeys are dead and plucked, unfortunately. They’re the ones more than 45 million Americans will be roasting for Thanksgiving. And the people who roast them don’t have to rely on guesswork and experience - or even juice-splattered meat thermometers - to determine when the golden-brown bird is done.

That’s because of a little pop-up bird timer, perfected by Tony Volk, a California turkey farmer, half a century ago. Thanksgiving’s main dish, before cooking. The pop-up timer is primed for action.

Thanksgiving’s main dish, before cooking. The pop-up timer is primed for action.

Others actually beat him to the idea of a spring-loaded plastic sensor that you’d stick into the thigh of the bird before shoving it in the oven. A little metallic bead deep in the device held a spring in place, and the soft metal was supposed to liquefy when Tom Turkey reached 82 degrees Celsius - the temperature when fowl is safe to eat. This would free the spring, and up would pop a plunger to announce the bird was ready.

But early versions had problems with weak springs that would clog with the honey and barbecue sauce people used to baste their birds. So the plunger wouldn’t pop, birds came out overdone and dry, and many a Thanksgiving was ruined.

Volk put a stronger spring in the contraption, combined materials to make a better triggering bead, and made sure it would not melt until the bird came within a half-degree of 82 degrees.

Originally, he and his family assembled each pop-up timer by hand around a kitchen table. Now, machines do it in a big California factory. Volk’s heirs sell more than 100 million poultry timers annually. That makes for a lot of smart turkeys, or turkey lovers, this Thanksgiving.

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