For the entire week before Turkey Doomsday, their imminent death was all I could think of whenever I checked on the turkeys. “Dead bird walking,” Kevin would say. And then, “Eat, eat!”
The day before their appointment with the Cone of Silence, we took their feed away. As a consequence, they were abnormally vocal and active in the 24 hours before their death. At one point, three of them escaped, leaving only Drumstick in the pen, and the escapees stood around on the other side of the fence, barking to get back in.
There was a lot of barking in general, and a flockwide sense of discontent. I could hardly blame them. Take my food away and I’ll show you discontent.
Doomsday dawned cold and cloudy, but with no rain in the forecast. As Kevin set up the plucker and the propane burner, I went to pick up Sam.
When you’ve got poultry to slaughter, you find out who your friends are.
I figured we’d be in for a lot of work, and another set of hands would be very convenient. I immediately thought of Sam, the sixteen-year-old son of our friends Ellen and John, who thus far has perfect attendance for our poultry kills. Last time, he not only provided assistance, he provided the poultry – two of his hens that were past laying age.
I checked with him, and he was in. Sam is definitely our friend.
So is Amanda, who confessed to not looking forward to seeing turkeys die, but thought she should suck it up and deal with the fact that it has to happen in order for Thanksgiving to look like the Norman Rockwell kind. She didn’t think she’d want to slit any throats, but would be happy to take pictures (the day-of pictures on this post are all hers).
We were also joined by two staffers from the Cape Cod Times, Jason Kolnos and Christine Hochkeppel. They had journalistic mission impossible: make turkey slaughter photogenic. (Which, somehow, they managed. You can see their work on the Cape Cod Times web site, Cape Cod Online, which posted a video of the actual deed.)
By 10:30 that morning, we were ready to go. Kevin had made a cone out of sheet metal, and attached it to two trees. The scalding water was holding at 160 degrees. The poultry plucker was ready to go. The kitchen table was covered with newspaper. The cooler was standing by, with 40 pounds of ice.
Most importantly, the knives were as sharp as my honing skills could make them.
Sam, Kevin, and I headed for the pen. Kevin picked up the nearest turkey. Beta, I think it was.
He took him out of the pen, turned him upside down, and put him in the cone. Kevin knelt down, and pulled Beta’s head through the cone’s bottom. “Thank you,” we said, and Kevin slit his throat. And that was it. In moments, it was over.
The blood poured from the bird’s neck, but there was no struggle. We speculate that the bird loses consciousness almost immediately, since no blood reaches its brain. After about half a minute, the legs kicked a bit. We’ve read that this happens as the heart stops; the same thing happened with the chickens.
When the bleeding stopped, Kevin decapitated it and dipped it in the scalding water to loosen the feathers. We’d heated the water in the only vessel we had big enough to hold a twenty-odd pound bird: a galvanized steel garbage can. We put it in our outdoor shower in the hopes both that it would be shielded from the wind and that it would go unnoticed by the media. No such luck on that second one. Christine hauled a ladder over for the express purpose of getting a good picture of a turkey being dipped in a steaming garbage can.
Once scalded, the bird’s feathers came out easily. We pulled the big tail and wing feathers by hand, and then Kevin fired up the plucker.
The plucker, as those of you who follow this space well know, is a contraption Kevin made from an old washing machine. It worked pretty well for Sam’s two chickens, but it had its issues. One of them was power, which we didn’t seem to have enough of, and the other was heat, which we seemed to have too much of.
When we turned the machine from horizontal to vertical, it ran better – that was, after all, the orientation it was designed for – but we were still not bullish on its long-term viability. When Kevin turned the console knob to “Spin” and pulled it out, though, it spun like a top.
He held the bird against the rubber plucker fingers, and the feathers flew, straight into the backstop we’d made with a tarp hung on the woodshed. It was going fine, until I smelled smoke.
I looked down at the motor. Sure enough, it was smoking. And then I looked again. There was an actual, genuine flame, licking out from the housing.
“Um … honey?” I said.
“Yeah?” Kevin said, adjusting the turkey so the plucker could reach its legs.
“The plucker’s on fire.”
My husband has many fine qualities. He is smart and funny, fearless and true. He is kind and curious and well-informed. He always does the right thing. But at this point in the story, I feel obligated to mention that safety-consciousness doesn’t top his list of personal assets.
When I told him the machine he was using was in the process of going up in flames, what he said was … “Naaaah.”
“Um … yeah.” That was Amanda. She saw the flame too.
“It’s just a little smoke.” Kevin was intent on his plucking and didn’t even look.
And then the machine shut down. It could have been because the spin cycle was over, but I’m betting it was because the motor was on fire.
I’ll admit that it was just a small fire, but the plucker was never the same.
This led, however, to an important discovery. Hand-plucking a turkey A) is easy and B) results in a more attractive bird.
Almost all turkeys raised commercially are white, and now we know why. Dark feathers can leave spots of pigment behind, unattractive little black dots marring the whitish-yellow skin. I’m not quite sure, but I think the spots are from feathers that break as they’re taken out. Feathers that come out cleanly don’t leave marks.
It took just a few minutes – three or four – for Sam, Kevin, and me to pluck a turkey by hand. And there were many fewer black spots on the hand-plucked birds than on the machine-plucked ones.
We’ll have another go at a chicken plucker, but we’ll design it for chickens. Our future turkeys will be done by hand.
But back to Beta. Once he was plucked, we took him inside for evisceration.
I’d seen the videos. I knew the anatomy. I was ready.
I will say, though, that nobody should have to gut her first turkey with the media in the kitchen. I desperately wanted to not screw it up, but I really had no idea what I was doing.
The first step is taking out the crop and severing the esophagus and trachea as low down in the body as you can. Sounds simple, yes?
Problem is, the outside of the crop is attached to the inside of the skin, and the crop’s outside looks exactly like the skin’s inside. It’s very hard to find the interface. It took me a good ten minutes to finally peel the crop away, and sever the esophagus and trachea.
Then I went in on the other end, which is easier. As soon as you get through the skin it’s easy to see where the bowels are, and to cut around the anus without severing them.
Once that’s done, you’re home free. You just reach into the body cavity and pull the innards out through the bottom end. That done, we had our first processed bird. In a little less than an hour, he’d gone from being a gobbling, pecking, living, breathing turkey to being a fourteen-pound, oven-ready roaster. It was a remarkable transformation.
The other three went a bit quicker, now that we had a better idea what we were doing. Sam and I each took our turn as executioner, and we all got better at all of the jobs. We’ll have a full year before we have to do this again, by which time I suspect we’ll have forgotten a lot of what we learned.
It’s hard to know what to expect of something you’ve never done before, and some of what I expected to be disconcerting – cutting a throat, sticking my hand inside a still-warm bird – turned out not to be. There were two things, though, that were disconcerting, neither of which I expected.
First was Edith. She was the last bird in the line-up and, somehow, she seemed to have a sense that something diabolical was going on. From the time we took Drumstick, the third bird we killed, out of the pen, she barked almost non-stop. She was clearly distressed at being alone.
We decided to speed things up by handing Drumstick, scalded and plucked, over to me for gutting while Kevin and Sam took Edith to the Cone of Silence. Unlike the other three birds, she fought. She ran away from Kevin when he tried to catch her, and when he turned her upside down to put her in the cone she flapped her wings madly to stay upright.
Even though she was clearly the smartest of our lot, I don’t think she had the intellectual wherewithal to figure out what was going on. She was, after all, a turkey. But she knew something was wrong, and it upset her.
We felt her pain.
The second disconcerting thing was straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. We all know that chickens run around after their heads have been cut off. Birds move after they’re dead. But I never realized that they moved a long time after they’re dead.
This came home to me as a turkey that had been killed, decapitated, scalded, and plucked sat on my kitchen table. I picked up the knife to gut it, and I saw its heart beat. We all did. Lub-dub, lub-dub. If it had still had feet, it might have gotten up and danced the Charleston.
That was creepy, but not as creepy as what Drumstick did.
He was dead. He was undeniably dead. He had no head, no feet, no feathers. But, when I picked him up by the neck to take him inside, he writhed in my hand. The whole body shifted and I felt the muscles in the neck move in my grip. That was beyond creepy. I almost dropped him on the driveway.
Now, more than twenty-four hours later, I think they’ve all stopped moving. They’re bagged and chilling in a cooler full of ice. Tomorrow, we’ll put two of them in the freezer, bring one to our freinds Dianne and Doug, and stow the last one, the one destined for our Thanksgiving table, in our refrigerator. This is the first year we’ll be eating a turkey we knew, and I think it gives us a visceral appreciation for what it means to eat meat.
You can’t use the occasion of Thanksgiving to talk about what you’re thankful for without being a little hokey, but spending some time focusing on what’s right in your life probably isn’t such a bad idea. It doesn’t seem quite in the spirit of the thing to say that I’m thankful for being top of the food chain, so I’m glad that’s only part of it. I’m also thankful that we have it in us to exercise our top-of-the-chain prerogative responsibly and humanely. Four turkeys had good lives because we made it so. They didn’t suffer, and we will eat well.
This morning, as Kevin and I went out to do the morning poultry check we looked in on the empty turkey pen. It was the first day in five months that we hadn’t had turkeys to feed and water. When we walked over, no birds came to the gate.
I asked him if he felt at all sad.
He considered. “No, not really,” he said.
“What do you feel?” I asked.
“I feel proud of us.”
(If you’d like to see a complete set of photos from the day, they’re here, on Flickr.)