Turkey Twizzlers: 2005

If you ask any adult who was primary school aged in 2005 what the biggest event of that year was they’ll all say the same thing.

No, not the inauguration of George Bush, or the launch of Youtube. A few may comment that the biggest event might have been the first screening on the new Doctor Who, but they’d be wrong. I am, of course, talking about the time Jamie Oliver banned turkey twizzlers from school dinners.

If you didn’t live through this event you can’t understand just how deeply it shattered the nation. I’d go so far as to say no school dinner based scandal has ever rocked the foundation of our society like it since – including the horse meat fiasco of 2013 (actually, had turkey twizzlers not already been discontinued, they may have been caught up in that one too…)

For those of you who don’t know (and those of you who just love the drama of it all), in 2005 celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a nation-wide campaign to remove lunches that he saw as being overly processed and heavy in fat and salt from school canteens. His plan was to replace these “fast-food” school dinners with ones cooked from scratch that included wholegrain and fibre on the ingredients list, and vegetables that didn’t contain E-numbers. Had he simply sought to add healthy options to school dinners, rather than remove all the deep fried offerings from the menu, then it’s unlikely I’d be here today, reminiscing about these lardy, fatty, spirals of meat. But that was never his plan; Oliver was unwavering in his stance – all unhealthy food must go.

It was a daunting quest for an age when a school meal could be nothing more than a pastry shell filled with melted cheese served with a side of Panda Pop cola (another school dinner great, taken too soon.) My lovely village primary once served me a lunch of nothing but custard, for example. But when Oliver embarked on his campaign, in the mess of potato smilies and chocolate cement, there was one lunch that quickly stood out as a particularly nefarious meal: the turkey twizzler.

It’s hard to describe a turkey twizzler to someone who didn’t grow up with them. How do you explain the rationale behind making a meal for kids out of spirals of turkey scrapings from the abattoir floor, mushed to a pulp with lard and breadcrumbs, coated in sugar and spices, and deep fried in oil? It doesn’t matter, the point is kids went wild for them. Standing in the lunch queue the whispers would trickle down the line with growing excitement: “it’s turkey twizzlers for lunch!” You can imagine the despair when they became the object of Oliver’s wrath.

Sides were picked in preparation for the Great Twizzler Conflict and the media did its best to represent each one fairly: on one side – an alliance of fast food junkies with no plans to live beyond forty and freedom-fighting parents who feared their little darlings would explode upon contact with something as healthy as even a baked bean. On the other – organic loving, vegetarian hippies who ate nothing but pure sunbeams and crapped out smugness. The battle ground was readied, a time for the fight was decided and the war cries were heard: parents would meet outside the school gates at lunchtime.

And meet they did. In scenes not dissimilar to humanitarian aid workers handing medicine through the fences of detainment camps, mothers slotted McDonald’s fries through the lattice work of school gates for their offspring to fight over. Business savvy parents with dubious scruples ran takeaway rackets, collecting money for daily orders and delivering them to rabid pre-teen hoards through gaps on the playing fields. On the other side of the war, parents rallied round Oliver and formed vigilante groups, calling themselves Ninjas, and stormed school kitchens to ensure not one trace of fat was found. Others formed collectives and took it in turns to cook meals for the school community while alternative catering companies, ones who couldn’t even spell “turkey twizzlers” let alone make them, were being sought.

In the end, Oliver was successful, and despite manufacturers offering to rejig the recipe to reduce the fat content, turkey twizzlers were removed from school lunches before being discontinued towards the close of 2005. But the landscape of school canteens was forever changed. No longer did we live off carbohydrate and grease. When the whispers filtered down the line they carried messages of despair and dismay: “it’s runner beans again.” The fall of the mighty twizzler heralded the end of other school lunch staples and in 2007 the government introduced compulsory rules for school caterers to follow under the document “Nutritional Standards”. The document pointed out that, in 2007, nearly a quarter of all children starting primary school in England were classed as overweight or obese. Similarly, three fifths of five year olds showed signs of dental decay.

Initiatives to combat such startling figures were drawn up and included the “eatwell plate” – a chart highlighting what the ideal nutritional makeup of a child’s meal should be. These plans were rolled out to parents and schools; every classroom had a glossy poster of the eatwell plate and pupils searched it with growing anxiety: where were the chips? The nuggets? Goddamn it, where were our potato waffles? All gone. In their place: fish, legumes, wholewheat bread and pasta. With growing horror we realised an entire third of the plate was labelled “fruit and vegetables”.

The eatwell plate. I achieve this maybe once or twice a year. Credit here.

Fried food was to be “restricted across the whole school day” and could be served no more than twice a week. In addition to this, there were to be two days across the week where no meat, battered, breadcrumbed or pastry-based food was to be served and instead only wholesome vegetarian meals were to be dished out to fill hungry bellies.

Worse was yet to come. Under the new legislation, schools were banned from selling chocolate, confectionary or crisps. Cakes and biscuits were to be eaten only at lunchtime as part of the eatwell plate. Fizzy drinks were outlawed. Blackmarket tuck-shops boomed and kids took out payments from playground loan sharks when they couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for a packet of Smarties. You had to be careful, though; miss a repayment and the sharks would come round to your locker and break all your crayons.

Fortunately for me, I had ended my time in primary education by 2007 and had escaped to the land of secondary school and packed lunches. The eatwell plate lost its power over my cohort and became an object of ridicule in PSHE lessons. People ate KitKats with reckless abandon in the corridors, and the bins were overflowing by the end of the day with such brazen items as crisp packets and shop bought sandwich wrappers. It was like a paradise.

Cowed though the nation had become, hardcore twizzler fans never gave up the fight. Almost immediately after their demise, appeals sprang up to reinstate them to their former glory and a 2017 petition to “bring back turkey twizzlers” has been signed by over 27,000 people – and the number is still growing. In 2019, the Telegraph warned (or celebrated, depending on your view) that turkey twizzlers could even make a comeback to school canteens after a no deal Brexit.

Given that the turkey twizzler was a mass produced, factory manufactured item, rather than a recipe as such, recreating it with 100% authenticity was impossible. What I did find, however, was a list of ingredients from the original product. Some of the ingredients I’d only ever seen in chemistry lessons, and many of them were just strings of numbers and letters; hardly the sort of stuff available in Sainsbury’s. What I’ve tried to do, therefore, is stick to accurate ratios and focus on the main ingredients while leaving the additives out.

Turkey twizzlers were a peculiar food, not because of their ability to transform a nation into a furious, additive-reliant mob, but because of the amount of fat in them. Let me explain: turkey isn’t an exciting meat. It can be bland and underwhelming, but what it does have going for it is its low-fat content relative to other meat. So it remains a mystery to me why anyone would take the main selling point of turkey and flip it on its head by adding so much lard that, when cooked, just over 21% of a turkey twizzler was just fat.

The other weird thing about turkey twizzlers was that, despite the name, they only contained 34% of turkey. The rest of the twizzler was fat, water, rusks and additives.

No-one ate twizzlers in bumper cars, I don’t know why this is the image Bernard Matthews chose.

I started with the two percentages I knew I had and worked out that if I was to make 500g of turkey twizzlers I’d need no more than 170g of turkey meat. I chose turkey sausage meat as it contained on the label some of the additives I’d not been able to buy myself, without adding anything that wasn’t on the original twizzler list. The ingredients in twizzlers were listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amounts listed first. After turkey (34%), the next ingredient on the list was water – but the “recipe” I found didn’t provide a quantity. Pork fat, however, was the third ingredient and I already knew that twizzlers were found to contain 21% of fat after cooking, meaning that the amount of water in my twizzlers had to be somewhere between 106g and 170g. I didn’t want sloppy twizzler, so I opted for a relatively reserved 110g.

Rusk was the fourth item before we embarked into a list of E-numbers and spices. I decided, therefore, that it had to be a relatively high percentage of a twizzler since so far there was nothing to “bulk up” the meat. I chose to add 100g, leaving about 15g or so wiggle room for spices, salt and flour.

The turkey, rusk, lard and water was blended in a food processor along with a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of salt until it resembled the infamous “pink slime” of reconstituted fast food. I shaped out five sausages and ran skewers through them before putting them in the fridge to firm up.

Homemade pink slime.

To create the iconic spirals that gave twizzlers their name, I cut into the sausages right to the skewer and angled up, so that the meat was sliced in one continuous spiral. Each twizzler was rolled in a mixture of BBQ, tomato, mustard and salt spices and then shallow fried in vegetable oil for a few minutes on each side. Because I wasn’t sure they were done I also finished each one off in the oven for fifteen minutes, just to ensure they were cooked all the way through.

By now the kitchen smelled like, well, the inside of a school canteen circa 2004. There was grease and oil spatter up the walls and a smoky, fried smell in the air. My skin and hair smelled like the inside of a deep fat fryer, no matter how much soap I scrubbed with. On the plus side(?!), I was inching ever closer to what promised to be an early grave as my turkey twizzlers finished off their cooking.

Once they were done I pulled the skewers out of them and marvelled at how springy and successful the spirals were. They were clearly a homemade version of the iconic school dinner, but they weren’t a bad take. Because they’d been made from scratch and I’d skipped all the additives, I even wondered if they might pass the government’s Nutritional Standards guidelines. Not likely, I thought, as the fat pooled off them and filled up a side plate.

The filter I used for this was called “nostalgia”.

Now might be a good time to admit something: I’ve never actually tried a turkey twizzler. Well, I had a clandestine forkful of one once, when my friend didn’t want to finish hers. My parents, wary of school dinners before the Great Twizzler Conflict even began, put me and my sister on the school register as being vegetarians – even though we weren’t. Rather than turkey twizzlers, beef burgers and chicken nuggets we were served cheese flan, cheese omelette and cheese quiche (which was cheese flan, but with a sprig of parsley on top to make it fancy.)

I don’t remember loads about my one mouthful of turkey twizzler, other than that I was seriously underwhelmed. It was chewy, fatty and the flavour was indistinguishable. My husband, on the other hand, had no restrictions placed on him, and punched the air with delight when I said I was going to try to recreate them. I therefore deferred to his judgement when deciding how successful this experiment had been.

The first tentative mouthful brought back the memory of the texture: crispy on the outside, springy and smooth inside. Though my twizzlers were larger than the original, I was pleased to see I’d pretty much nailed the springiness of the spirals in at least two of them.

In terms of taste – they were, as my husband put it “like turkey twizzlers without the MSG.” The flavours were very close to what he remembered in that they were a mix of fat and fried meat with a smoky coating, but without the chemicals and flavourings they lacked something of the fizz, the addictive quality, of the old twizzlers.

In the end we didn’t finish these beyond a few exploratory bites. As kids, the idea of deep fried lard and turkey might have been appealing, but having been part of the process I couldn’t wait to bin the lot and drink a pint of kale smoothie. In one afternoon I felt I’d done what Jamie had been trying to do for the best part of his career; in the end he hadn’t needed to campaign and fight against the pro-twizzler faction – all he’d had to do was teach people how to make them.

E x

Turkey Twizzler

170g turkey sausage meat
110g water
106g pork lard
100g rusks
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying

For the coating:
3g sugar
3g BBQ spice
2g tomato powder
2g flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

  1. Add the turkey, lard, water and rusks to a food processor and blend until a smooth paste forms. Add the tablespoon of flour and teaspoon of salt to bind the mixture together more. If you think it is still too loose, add another spoon of flour.
  2. Shape the turkey paste into 5 large or 6 medium sausages. Push a skewer through each one and place int he fridge for several hours to firm up.
  3. Mix up the ingredients for the coating and spread over a plate.
  4. Remove the meat from the fridge and with a sharp knife, cut up in a spiral from the bottom to the top of the sausage, making sure to cut deep enough to hit the skewer. You may need to wiggle the spirals down the skewer slightly to ensure even frying.
  5. Roll each skewer in the coating and shall fry, one at a time, in a frying pan of vegetable oil.
  6. Fry each twizzler, turning every minute, for about 7 or 8 minutes. Alternatively, you can bake them for 18 minutes at 180 degrees C.