Our thanks giving

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.

The 3-man pluck. That's Sam, in the foreground, going at it with a will.

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.)

25 people are having a conversation about “Our thanks giving

  1. Mazel Tov. Despite the creepiness.

    And thanks for the mental image of the plucker on fire, and of Kevin chalking it up to “just a little smoke.”

  2. Nicely done my friends! Really!
    Civil, educational, pragmatic, and enlightening.

    Makes me wonder tho…
    How have we gotten so far from our food that MOST OF US have never killed the thing we ate…or for that fact seen it done….EVER?? WOW…sort of profound..

    I loved that that video needed a warning.. that really clarified the issue for me.

    Thank you.. Enjoy your bird… it will probably be the best one in town.

    Got beer to go with it?!

  3. You are amazing, woman. And I love you so very much. Happy T-giving to you and Kevin. The only thing I’ve ever killed that I ate was fish (and other assorted delicious sea critters). You really make me appreciate what we have. xo

  4. Oh Tamar, what a gigantic obstacle to have successfully tackled. Just another way in which you and Kevin are miles closer to being self-sufficient. Back-pats all around, and definitely a celebratory beer is deserved!

  5. Thanks for the tip on the plucking. I just watched the BBC Victorian Farm series on youtube. They dry plucked their turkey, and ever since I’ve been wondering about the utility of scalding our turkey. Based on your input we’ll be skipping that step.

    And yeah, barking. That’s the only way to describe the sound an adult turkey makes when they’re out of food. That is in fact, exactly the word I used to tell my husband about it. The feeder we have for our turkey is rather small, so she can plow through it pretty fast now, and calls for refills pretty emphatically.

    As for the twitching, that happened with our garden rabbit this past spring. It was skinned, decapitated, and eviscerated, indoors on my cutting board, and it still twitched for a while.

    Do you plan on brining your bird? I picked up our turkey day bird yesterday, and I think I’ll brine it, starting today, for 36 hours or so. It’s worked well for us in the past.

    • Kate — I’ve never dry-plucked, but I’ve heard it’s hard to do. The scalding breaks down the proteins that hold the feathers in (or so I’ve read). Our feathers came out easily, and I suspect that wouldn’t have been the case had we not scalded. The only downside (as long as you scald at the right temperature and don’t take the skin off) is wet feathers. Ours our currently drying on our living room floor.

      I haven’t decided about brining yet, but I’ve got to make up my mind by tomorrow morning. I’m thinking no, this time around. I want to see how the bird comes out, as is.

      I’ll look forward to hearing how your turkey slaughter goes.

  6. Oh my gosh, I opened the C C. Times headlines email that I receive each morning, and there, at the top of the list, i found you and Kevin! Great article, and loved the video with your voice (which I have never heard, only read), and your very appropriate emotional telling of the turkey dispatch. Loved it! You have a really cute haircut, and Kevin, well Kevin is a hunk! I’m 75 so I can say that.

    Now to go back to today’s blog and read the details of bloody doomsday. You have more guts than I do, both literally and figuratively. Hope your birds are super delicious after this, and I’m betting they will be.

  7. I am proud of you, too. I wish I were as far along on my mission to end factory farmed animals from my diet, but I’m not. I’m glad that you guys are.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Congratulations for successfully navigating a difficult day!

    On the creepy things: I too would’ve been bummed to see that last turkey clearly knowing something was wrong. They’re not stupid. They may not know exactly what lies ahead. They may not wail and flail at death the way we do. But they’re not stupid. This is the part about raising animals for food that makes me glad I primarily hunt for my meat – no sense of betrayal.

    But the twitching? That never surprises me anymore. I saw a steer being slaughtered this summer and I was astonished at how long he kept twitching as he was being skinned and gutted, as if he were flicking off flies. It went on for a good 45 minutes.

    Also, I laughed when you said plucking them is easy. I’ve been dry-plucking mine to save feathers and it is really hard!

    • NorCal — Scald the birds, and dry the feathers. I think it’s easier, overall.

      I thought a lot about your comment, and I don’t think what I felt was betrayal. These birds existed only because someone was going to eat them, and I think that’s not a bad deal for them — assuming their life is good. Of course, they didn’t have a choice. Although I don’t feel like giving an animal a good death after having given them a good life is betrayal, I can see how it might, to someone else. When you feed and house and care for an animal every day, there’s a sense of an implied contract, and when you come in one day and kill it, you’ve violated it.

      I was clear on my obligations to these birds from the get-go, and I’m glad I didn’t feel that way.

  9. Tamar – I haven’t read the whole post, but DON’T let the birds rest for only a day. Let them rest for at least 4 days before freezing. You need to get the rigor out of them. Eg: we bought our bird this year and they were slaughtered on Friday with the expectation of being kept unfrozen in the frig and cooked on Thursday. Also don’t wrap them in plastic. Let them dry in the frig uncovered. Hope you have frig room.

    Oh and congrats and good job to you all.


  10. Kim — I did a lot of reading about this, and everything I saw said that 24 hours was enough for rigor to leave the body, and 48 hours was more than enough. You’re the first person I’ve heard say 4 days.

    Our Thanksgiving bird will be chilled for 5 days, but we put 2 in the freezer after 2 1/2 days. I hope that works out OK.

    We didn’t have fridge room, which was a good thing because it made me clean out the fridge. Long overdue!

  11. I coulda told you how to gut a turkey, and it has nothing to do with any esophagus… 😉 And ALWAYS hand-pluck turkeys. Huge, huge difference. Ideally you have a gigantic pot of scalding water to loosen the feathers, too…

    Well done for going the whole way, though. Yeah, the twitching is pretty creepy. It happens.

  12. Yet again you managed to take a potentially upsetting experience and convey it with humor and respect – and no hokeyness either. Those are some fine looking turkeys.

    I second the Poe-esque qualities that dead birds can exhibit. Last time I was gutting a partridge (a headless plucked bird) I must have squeezed the body and there was still air trapped in its voicebox (or bird equivalent) and it let out an alarm call while lying dead on my cutting board. I jumped AND squealed like a little girl from the surprise. I thought Mike was going to wet his pants laughing at me.

    And for the record, men are genetically programmed to court danger. They cannot resist the call of making fires. If I ever wanted to set a man trap I would build a weak, smouldery bonfire and claim that I’m struggling to get it to go. The lure of “fixing” the bonfire – proper arrangement of the sticks, the science of air flow – is like a siren’s call to them. It will bring in men from neighboring towns. I bet Kevin was secretly proud that his machine was working so hard it caught fire! Mike LOVED that part and is a little jealous he wasn’t there to see it.

    • Jen — Funny how we discover the secrets to attracting men only after we’ve been married for a good long time. If your fire trick doesn’t work, just drive around in my 1970 Land Rover. The men follow you like you’re the Pied Piper.

      We MUST get Kevin and Mike together.

      • If Mike and Kevin ever get together, I give it a week before we’re driving one/both of them and a blood-soaked appendage to the emergency room.

  13. Tamar,

    LOL. We need “America’s Test Kitchen” to do a comparison test of how long it takes to “get the rigor out!” And interestingly I think people have different expectations of what they expect from the meat. E.g.: I’ve read old accounts of hanging shot pheasants by the neck until the head comes off from the rot. Certainly being that “high” would me too much for me.

    Our Thanksgiving is delayed until Saturday. So in order to preserve our bird that was slaughtered on last Friday, I put it in an ice and water bath. I took it out today, thinking that it might need some time in the frig to resolve the rigor. But the joints were all completely loose – the rigor was completely resolved after 7 days even in the ice bath. But it also didn’t smell off. So while I think I’m pushing the envelope here, I’m comfortable eating it.

    Oh, in the Oct/Nov 2010 V5,#5 issue of Backyard Poultry there is a great, great article about slaughter and butchering of poultry. Using that article, I’m finally doing a clean and efficient job.

    see: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com.


  14. Tamar,
    about ten years ago, I had the opportunity to raise my own turkeys for two years, while I lived in a rural part of the Antelope Valley. It was just a house in a neighborhood with a big back yard, but I put in chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and a huge garden. I had the opportunity to raise one turkey to almost 40 pounds, and he was quite healthy when we finally did him in. He was my stepson’s favorite animal, and was named after his father. I butchered him by giving him a guzzle of rum to calm him down, and loosen up his circulation, then cutting his throat quickly, and hanging him upside down from a clothesline. We fed 10 people the next day, and didn’t dent half of the bird. I still remember it being a time when I was proud to provide for my family.
    Since then, I have only been able to envision my previous lifestyle, as I’ve become an urban dweller, dependent on others for my food. Since I went fishing, I did supply some fish for a while, but found it to be too sedentary an activity, so now I’ve started hunting to put meat on the table. Once again, I am involved in some of those activities, and have increasingly been seeking to go back to that lifestyle. Someday, I hope to return to a semi-rural or rural living situation, where I can raise my own, but until then, I will have to read about people like yourselves, and remember “the good ole days.” Thanks for sharing your lifestyle!

  15. Richard — Thanks so much for stopping in and commenting. I love your strategy of giving a turkey rum before slaughter. Other than that, we use the same basic technique. Hang upside down, cut throat quickly. I’ve been surprised at how calm a death that seems to be for poultry.

    We were urban up to about 15 minutes ago, so I understand your constraints. But if you can hunt and fish, that’s not bad consolation for not being able to keep animals. And I’d encourage you not to give up on fishing. Sure, there’s a lot of sedentary in it, but get yourself a good audiobook and enjoy it. The excitement of catching a fish will make up for the time sitting around.

    • Hi Tamar,
      I’m actually kinda suffering from PTSD, due to having capsized my boat in the Long Beach Harbor at Midnight in June of this year. My fishing buddy and I had to spend half an hour clinging to the aluminum hull before we got noticed by a tugboat. I haven’t been on the water since then. But the Hunting has allowed me to continue getting out of doors, so I guess I was trying to rationalize my having given up fishing…for now. One of these days, I’ll get up my nerve, and put the boat back in the water. In the meantime, I’m going to be hiking the ridges, on the lookout for dinner.

  16. ———- Forwarded message ———-
    Hi Tamar,
    here I sit after having eaten a Factory Farm Turkey, watching this film…
    I have been expelling waste like a goose, and don’t even get to go on my Anti-Black Friday hike or road trip, and wonder if I’ve gotten a food-borne disease…and then I watch this…even though I have been through reading Michael Pollan’s book, and am more than halfway through the Vegetarian Myth by L. Keith, this film makes it pretty plain what we’re up against. I’ve been talking about this with my wife, and I think she’s slowly coming to realize what I’m talking about when I say I want to clean up our food.
    This should be publicized, just as Food, Inc., and it may be something I share with my Life Science classes later, once we’re into the bigger issues.
    Take care, and have something real to eat for Thanksgiving.
    Regards, Richard

    Richard Mellott, M.A.

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