The Greenberg Turkey

A Greenberg smoked turkey is a Thanks-giving tradition for some  families in the South — and in St. Louis. Photo: Southern Finds blog (southern-finds.wordpress.com)

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

A Thanksgiving Day feast without a turkey is like a seder meal without matzah. While each family has its own traditional array of side dishes, almost all of us include that iconic bird on our menu, even if some of us depart from the conventional roasted version in favor of brined, fried, barbecued or even smoked turkey. 

More recently, however, I’ve noticed a growing trend in delegating the preparation of the turkey to someone outside the family. Whether it’s the local supermarket, deli, caterer or restaurant chef, more and more hosts and hostesses are considering turkey options that will not only reduce anxiety and the shuden (the big mess), but free up oven space to roast their accompaniments and bake their desserts.

Which brings me to Sam Greenberg. No, I don’t mean that older man ahead of you in line at Simon Kohn’s or the gentlemen sitting three rows in front of you at High Holiday services. Instead, I refer to THE Sam Greenberg of Sam Greenberg Smoked Turkeys in Tyler, Texas. 

I first heard of this Sam Greenberg on New Year’s Eve last year when our friends, Dick and Linda Sher, generously hosted us at their home in Palm Springs, Calif. We arrived at their front door just as a courier was delivering a large box labeled Greenberg Smoked Turkey, Tyler, Texas.

“This is a Sher tradition,” Dick explained. “My parents began the tradition many years ago, and Linda and I are continuing it.”

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Dick grew up in Kansas City, and his parents invited the same four or five families to their home each New Year’s Day. 

“The kids would hang out together for the day,” Dick told me, “and when we got hungry, there was always a Greenberg Smoked Turkey. It tasted great back then, and it still does today.”

And as my husband, Mike, and I confirmed later that day, a Greenberg Smoked Turkey is truly delicious.

All of which got me wondering: Who is this Sam Greenberg? Indeed, is there actually a real Sam Greenberg down in Tyler, Texas, and, if so, does he really smoke turkeys? Or is this all just a bubbe mayse (old wives’ tale)? I had to find out.

I am happy to confirm, after a delightful conversation with the one and only Sam Greenberg, that he does exist and that he does smoke turkeys down in Texas. Here’s what I learned. 

Tyler, Texas, is a small city with a population of 100,000. It’s about 100 miles southeast of Dallas. Back in 1903, 17-year-old Samuel Isaac Greenberg emigrated from Poland and settled down in Tyler, having been recruited by Congregation Ahavath Achim to be their hazen. He set up a blacksmith shop and worked a small dairy farm. 

Oh, and he also just happened to be a shohet, the one with rabbinical authorization to slaughter animals in accordance with the laws set forth in the Torah.

In the corner of his barn, Samuel Isaac Greenberg built a smokehouse and, using a recipe handed down from his grandmother, occasionally smoked poultry. It came to pass that when his neighbors in the community ordered a chicken or a turkey from him, they would request that he smoke it.

Over time, the smoking business grew, and Samuel’s son  Zelick started helping his father keep up with the demand. When a man in Dallas ordered six smoked turkeys, Zelick needed to find a way to get the turkeys to Dallas. He packed them in large candy boxes and shipped them to Dallas by train. 

And so began the Greenberg Smoked Turkey business. That was 78 years ago. 

Samuel’s grandson Sam Greenberg has been running the family business since graduating from college in 1982. 

“When I started out, all of the turkeys were kosher,” Sam told me. “We sold between 250 and 300 kosher turkeys each year. However, in the 1990s, when it became more difficult to find a source for quality kosher turkeys, our business changed. Today we sell over 200,000 smoked turkeys every year and ship them all over the United States.”

Today, every Greenberg turkey is prepared using the same recipe handed down from his great-great-great-grandmother. After smearing the turkeys with the proprietary rub, they go into one of 20 smokehouses, each equipped with three hickory wood fires. The turkeys are smoked for 16 to 18 hours. 

“The beautiful burnished dark golden brown skin is the result of the lengthy smoking process,” Greenberg assured me, “and not from the addition of any artificial color.”

Once fully cooked, the turkeys are cleaned of any excess grease, weighed and packed for shipping. They are then stored in giant freezers until shipped. 

Beginning in October, Greenberg Smoked Turkey Inc. is open seven days a week until the end of December, which is the period during which the bulk of its sales occur. The turkeys are available, however, year-round.

Even though most of the turkeys are shipped, on the three days leading up to Thanksgiving Day, people drive to Tyler from all over the state and beyond to wait in line for one of the 10,000 turkeys sold each Thanksgiving. 

“To me, the fact that I am continuing my family’s legacy is a tremendous feeling,” Sam said.  Furthermore, it is the best business in the world. I have been blessed by two fabulous things: the best customers in the world, and the best people working with me. It’s crazy here for three months, when we cram 12 months of business into a little over eight weeks. It happens every year. It’s great! I have a nephew that works with me, and two older sisters are also involved in the business. There will always be a Greenberg here.”

So whether you prepare your own turkey or leave the roasting, frying or smoking to someone else, here are a few recipes to help fill out your Thanksgiving Day menu.

To order a Greenberg Smoked Turkey, visit their website, gobblegobble.com, or call the company at 1-903-595-0725.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].

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