We slaughtered the turkeys this past Sunday, but the plans began months ago.
This past summer, about a week after I’d written a piece about our pigs for the Huffington Post, I got an e-mail from Beth Krauss. Beth does PR for Whole Foods Market, and her focus is on the meat department. Whole Foods is paying a lot of attention to how they source their meat and poultry, and Beth was on the lookout for journalists interested in the kind of lives our livestock lead.
We had a long phone conversation, talking about those issues. She invited me to come to California to visit two of the turkey farms they buy from, and I thought it was only right that I issue an invitation in return.
“Have you ever killed anything?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “I never have.”
“Do you want to?”
It’s a trick question. Nobody really wants to kill animals. I know a lot of people who do it anyway, and we all do it for the same reason – we’re trying to take responsibility for the meat we eat.
Beth knows this, and she said yes. I invited her to come to our house for turkey slaughter day. Not much of an invitation, I know. Come to our house and cut a turkey’s throat! And then we’ll show you how to pluck it and gut it! A good time will be had by all.
I didn’t expect her to come.
But she did, all the way from Austin, Texas. And she didn’t come alone. She brought her sister, Kate, who’s the interim Executive Director at Slow Food USA, and Becky Faudree, from the Whole Foods global meat buying team.
They arrived Saturday, and we had them over for dinner that evening. Our Maine friends Ron and Susan had come down for the big event, so it seemed like a good time to light up the wood-fired oven. Over roasted oysters and pizza, we got to know each other. (We also learned that there is an unexpected bonus when you invite the Whole Foods meat people to your house – they brought a beautiful dry-aged porterhouse steak, and a Rioja to go with it, as a hostess gift.)
The next morning, we made everyone breakfast (eggs with smoked bluefish and onions, and bread made from the leftover pizza dough), and talked about how the day was going to go. Then we got started.
Kevin and Ron had set up the processing line the day before. The Cone of Silence was secured between two trees, with a fish tote (a big plastic box we use for oystering) to catch the blood. There was a new metal garbage can filled with water, and a propane burner to heat it for scalding. There was a beam with three hooks for plucking three birds, and a tarp to catch the feathers.
Our friend Maggie also joined us. She had a chicken that needed to be dispatched, and we did her bird, and then our first turkey. Kevin showed everyone where to put the knife, and how to make one firm cut, deep enough to sever the blood vessel but not so deep as to hit the trachea or esophagus. Let the bird bleed, and be prepared for flapping as the heart stops. Then it’s into the 160-degree water for about a minute to loosen the feathers. A zip tie goes around the feet so we can hang the bird vertically, and we pluck.
We took the first turkey through the entire process, and Kevin went into the hoophouse to get the second. It was one of the Narragansett toms.
Beth wasn’t sure she could. Becky wasn’t sure she could.
“I can, “ said Kate.
And she did. Kevin put the bird in the cone, and Kate held the head and made that one firm cut. It was perfect. Then Maggie did the next one. Also perfect. Bolstered by those two successes, first Beth and then Becky took knife in hand and killed a turkey. And they did it well.
I always have a lot of free-floating anxiety on turkey slaughter day, and I can feel it drain away when the last bird is dead. From then on, nothing that can go wrong matters very much. The hard part, the important part, is done.
We took the birds into the kitchen, which I’d turned into Station Evisceration by covering the table with plastic and a week’s worth of Wall Street Journals. We gutted and cleaned the birds (Beth, who couldn’t help feeling that insides were icky, nevertheless shared my fascination with gizzards), and put them in an ice water bath we’d set up in a cooler.
We cleaned up. We sat down. We had a beer. We were done.
We have seldom been thanked for our hospitality as graciously and sincerely as Beth, Becky, and Kate thanked us for letting them kill our turkeys. It’s an odd thing to be thanked for, but I understood. They had taken the day very seriously. They had steeled themselves to do something difficult but important, and they had done it.
You may have noticed that I didn’t kill any of the birds. I have killed them in the past, and I know that I can. Kevin has done more, and he’s better at it. The difference between killing one bird and killing many birds is important because practice improves your skills. But the difference between killing no birds and killing one bird is important because it changes your relationship to the meat you eat.
I understand what Beth, Kate, and Becky were grateful for this past Sunday because it was only two years ago that I did what they did. I understand.