How to cook your Thanksgiving turkey: Step One

I was very small when my mother explained death to me. Everything alive eventually dies, she told me. Pets, plants, grandmothers. You and me. And it is death, she has always said, that makes life precious.

But that’s not strictly true. It isn’t death that makes life precious. It’s knowledge of death.

Something our six turkeys, fortunately, didn’t have.

This year’s flock was different from last years. Last year, we had three toms and one hen, a ratio that makes for plenty of strutting and posturing, and some out-and-out fighting. There was a clear alpha, Drumstick, two clear subordinates, Beta and Gamma, and a lot of chest-bumping

Edith, the one hen, seemed unaware of the discord she generated. Freed from the biological necessity of fighting for a mate, she spent her days plotting her next escape. (The play-by-play of last year’s flock is here, in all its chronological glory, but you can read the executive summary in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post.)

This year, by chance, we had three males and three females, and there was peace in the pen. I’m no turkey behaviorist, but it seemed that they paired off. There was very little in the way of displaying or gobbling, and we never once witnessed a fight.

When there’s no displaying, and no obvious alpha male, there’s not much to distinguish individuals. Only one hen earned a name – we called her Lefty for a sty on her left eye – and the name faded when the sty shrank and eventually disappeared. Our turkeys were oddly anonymous.

But we liked them. Last year, I thought turkeys were charmless. I didn’t warm up to their eerie one-eyed stare or the way they never learned not to peck at the Levi’s tag on my jeans pocket. (Of course, I never learned to not wear Levi’s in the pen, so maybe I shouldn’t be throwing stones here.) This year’s turkeys weren’t so different, but in between the two flocks we’d had ducks, so we understood just how unpleasant poultry could be. What we found charmless last year looked more like quiet dignity this time around.

I’ll never look forward to a slaughter day (even for a flock of smelly, messy, alarmist ducks), but it makes it easier to have done enough of them that we know what to expect. It keeps the anxiety to manageable levels.

Going into this, we not only had experience, we had help. We cut a deal with our friend Christl whereby she got a turkey in return for her plucking assistance. And our friend Amanda flew in from clear across the country to take part.

The plan was to do it exactly the way we did it last year, minus the plucker Kevin made out of an old washing machine, which met a tragic, fiery end last slaughter day. We kill the turkeys by severing the blood vessels in their necks (without damaging trachea or esophagus) so they bleed out, and we had a cone set up to hold them while we did it. We had a garbage can of water heated to 160 degrees so we could scald them to loosen the feathers. Kevin set up a kind of scaffold with two hooks and a tarp underneath for plucking.

After plucking, we’d remove heads and feet and bring them into the kitchen for eviscerating. I had the table cleared and covered with a plastic cloth with a layer of newspaper on top of it, and we had the big cooler filled with ice for the finished birds.

We sharpened two knives. And then we sharpened them again. The only pain we inflict in this process – if it goes smoothly – is one cut to the neck. We want our knives sharp.

Everything did go smoothly. We killed, plucked and gutted without incident. It wasn’t cutting their throats, or sticking my hand in a their still-warm bodies to pull out their insides that knotted my stomach. It was the cries of distress from the turkey left behind as its mate was taken from the pen, never to return.

There’s a movie scene that sticks in my mind, although I can’t remember what movie it’s from (if you know, please tell me). It’s a scene where someone who I think is on the run from the law comes across a woman who lives alone in the woods. She has goats, and she isn’t afraid of the fugitive. They sit down and talk, and she has a goat standing at her feet with its head in her lap. She strokes the goat gently, and then, without interrupting the conversation, calmly cuts its throat.

That, I have always thought, is how to kill an animal.

What makes killing so significant isn’t the physical pain inflicted. It’s the awareness that there is such a thing as life, and that it is ending. Minus the awareness, it’s only the physical pain that matters. The knife stroke that takes my birds’ life is not nearly as significant as pain or distress we might cause by mistreating them.

Amanda said that taking their feeder away the day before was more difficult than actually killing them because there would be some suffering involved in twenty-four hours of hunger. Leaving a hen in distress because we’ve taken her tom away makes me unhappy, and we tried to take them in the order that minimized their pain. The actual killing, while certainly not pleasant, feels constructive. We raised these animals for meat, and we cared for them and are killing them responsibly.

Amanda was with us last year, too, but only as an observer. This year, she decided she wanted to participate. She found the prospect of killing a turkey, pulling out its feathers, cutting off its head and feet, and sticking her hand in its guts daunting, but she didn’t want to be the kind of person who shied away. And so she made herself do it – all of it.

Some time late in the afternoon, when the birds were on ice, the kitchen cleaned, she sat down for the first time in many hours. “You know,” she said to me, “it was a good day.”

And it was. It was a good day.

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13 people are having a conversation about “How to cook your Thanksgiving turkey: Step One

  1. I’ve refused to see the movie (because the book was important to me) but the scene of the woman with the goats sounds like a chapter in Cold Mountain, where Inman meets a mountain gypsy woman with a herd of goats.

  2. I’ve seen that movie and I remember that scene, but I can’t remember the name of the movie either. Neither can Steve and has a better memory than I do.

    So how do you know where the veins are? Because I cut behind the esophagus and outward as taught, but I’m not convinced that it’s the most humane way to kill poultry.

    By the way, have you guys sampled the beer yet, and what did you think?

  3. Cold Mountain is the movie, and Ken is correct about that chapter. The scene in the movie is fantastic, because of how she does it. The book is more beautiful than the movie. Aren’t they always though?

    I love that a friend came to help from start to finish. It’s good to see how things are done from start to finish, and learn to do it yourself. I believe it is respectful of the animals, and I love that you took them in an order that minimized their separation anxiety. We are hoping next year to start with chickens, and I’d like to have a couple turkeys as well. It will be here that I come to review your posts on your learning process, and I thank you for the education while you go through it.

  4. So interesting to read about your flock dynamics. We wound up with two docile toms and six fairly aggressive, unlikeable hens this year. I guess we’re all more pleasant when we aren’t trying desperately to prove our worth.

  5. Yup, Cold Mountain – one of those rare movies that doesn’t turn a very good book into a travesty. And that scene is so wonderful in the movie because the goat woman is played by the inimitable Eileen Atkins. I found that scene remarkable too, before I ever kept livestock. “A person can live on goats.”

    Glad to hear this slaughter day went so well. We’ve got another one coming up for our old hens. In fact it’s overdue, but this time of year it’s just so hard to find the time in the schedule. I think quiet dignity is the right way to describe turkeys, btw. I’m very chastened by your disappointment with and disapproval of ducks.

  6. It gives me some comfort on ‘harvest’ days to realise that the animals we’re eating have no concept of their own death. I know they have responses to stress but we can mitigate those – e.g. like you, we make sure there isn’t a singleton left on his/her own, and we don’t kill them in front of each other (though I don’t know if the flock registers an individual bird’s flapping as distress).

    I find that I get reflective about death during the process, but the objective part of me is always looking for ways to refine the process, to make it as humane as possible for them and efficient as possible for us. I never feel we get it exactly right, probably because the end process is something you’ve been interacting with dies. I’m always left feeling slightly sad on those days. You miss what you’ve been caring for.

    I’ve recently found a tool that punctures the back of a bird’s head with one squeeze, and it causes less flapping than the stunning technique we’ve been using. I’m trialling that on the next batch of meat chickens, and will use it for all wounded pheasants now.

    Re. feeding before slaughter- I take their food away the night before too. They have an afternoon feed in their crop to get them through the night, but it’s gone in the morning. And I feed them maize/wheat, not pellets as their last supper so you don’t get a crop full of mush to deal with. Worst case, you find a few kernels still in there. I leave them with water though. It doesn’t seem to create stress in the flock.

    Isn’t it interesting that each flock has its own personality? There must be some poultry social dynamics at work.

  7. Ken — Yes! Cold Mountain! Thanks for clearing that up.

    Paula, we cut on the side of the neck, at the base of the head, because that’s where people on YouTube did it — and we watched many, many videos before we did it ourselves. As for the beer, we loved it! I’ll send you a more detailed account by e-mail.

    HB — Yes. As I write this, it’s the morning after and six turkeys are chilling in ice water in our cooler, and it is good.

    Brooke, if you’re inclined to want to try turkeys, you should. The most important lesson I’ve learned in all this is that it’s really not difficult to raise your own poultry. Caring for them and killing them properly only requires that you pay attention — no special skills are needed. And if what you read here is helpful, I’m very gratified.

    Rachel — I’ll take that as an object lesson. If we have a flock with more hens than toms, I’ll be curious to see if we get the same dynamic.

    Kate — I should point out that many people enjoy having ducks. And, having smoked a deep-fried two of them this past Friday, I am tempted to reconsider.

    Jen — I’m curious about the back-of-the-head gizmo. It kills? One of the reasons we do it the way we do is that it’s less messy — the heart pumps the blood out for us.

    I definitely felt sad, and the sight of the empty pen makes me a little wistful. But there’s also a sense that all’s right with the world. This is how we planned it, this is how it happened, we managed the whole thing competently, and there are six birds chilling.

    That every flock is different is what keeps this interesting.

  8. This weekend was was the first ever test of our new plucker. I’ve been slowly building it in the loungeroom over the past few weeks. To be honest, it wasn’t that cheap to build (but it didn’t catch on fire either!). So we reckon we have to pluck around 80 birds with it before we start to break even (versus buying a free-range organic chicken).

    But I feel really stressed killing birds, even a bunch of annoying Australorp cockrels that have been waking me up at 04:30 most mornings for the past month. I think the real problem is I’m very much concerned to make that cut perfectly.

    For the most part I think I managed it ok. By I sure am happier once the killing is done, and only plucking (now trivial) and gutting are left.

    • Kingsley — I, too, breathed a sigh of relief when the last bird was killed, even though it was Kevin (with an assist from Amanda) who was doing the actual cutting this time. I was manning Station Evisceration in the kitchen, and when Kevin came in to tell me it was all done, I felt my body relax.

      So, how’d you make the plucker?

      • I bought Herrick Kimball’s book on his “Whizbang Chicken Plucker”: If you google that phrase, you will find a few videos of them in action. (My favourite is where the lady says “Okie Dokey Pokey” at the end).

        Once I found out that buying just the piece of metal for the plate was actually more expensive than buying *all* the machine parts pre-cut & drilled from Mr Kimball, I did so. Although I was informed later that the particular metal shop I went to is regarded as rather expensive, but that’s life.

        I’m not a tradesman, so screwing bits of wood together and having them come out square, equal & level is far from an everyday occurrence. However I managed to get it together ok – with a bit of re-work and swearing. But it was also kind of rewarding, even more-so when that very first bird went in, and it didn’t shake itself to pieces.

        My only piece of advice about the building: run questions and comments through your SO, thus she/he can’t question your flagrant miscalculations later. And, when you toss that first, freshly scalded chicken into the drum, don’t lean over in slack-jawed awe … unless you don’t mind the odd warm wet feathers in your mouth.

        In terms of plucking, we did 5 birds (all about a year old), and the only thing left was literally one or two small feathers in the wing-pits.

  9. Ohhhhh, the mates. I can totally see how that knots your stomach. It does mine, too, when we hunt ducks, and one goes down, and its mate keeps circling – in great peril. Not fun.

    I’m really glad you kill the last two turkeys as quickly as possible. Minimizing suffering and distress is important.

    • I must admit that I find little to admire in the turkey; it will always represent a loser mocked by other losers. Not worthy of rabbit or duck season, the turkey, despite Franklin’s claims to courage, remains a bird Crevecouer’s early fronteirsman would not waste his gun on. Best observed, as they are in Seamus Heaney’s poem, hanging in a buther’s shop, turkeys, when frozen solid and wrapped in Butterball plastic, make fine replaceemts for the granite stones of curling; we bowled them down supermarket isles when, like the boys in Updike’s A&P, we grew weary of our teenage wastelandish ways.

      Now Death, the Big D, is no coward and no turkey. Mother never taught me about Big D. I learned biut was never tuahgt that the golden unleaving was what I mourned for simply by walking the streets. No deep marrow of the woods to suck from, it was there, at one’s feet. And if, like Margaret, sometimes I seemed unaware of its shadows, some poem would explain it.

      Margaret, are you grieving
      Over Goldengrove unleaving?
      Leaves, like the things of man, you
      With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
      Ah! as the heart grows older
      It will come to such sights colder
      By & by, nor spare a sigh
      Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
      And yet you wíll weep & know why.
      Now no matter, child, the name:
      Sorrow’s springs are the same.
      Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
      What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
      It is the blight man was born for,
      It is Margaret you mourn for.

      By Gerard Manley Hopkins
      → Show additional poem info

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