My next door neighbor has been raising turkeys. About a month ago he asked me if I would like to help him “process” the turkeys before Thanksgiving. “Process” is such a clinical term. It sounds clean, it sounds efficient, it sounds very, very tidy.
It is not. And I’m going to talk a little about that. And I’m sorry.
Let it be said that I am a person who captures spiders in a jar to carry them outside. When I see a person step on an ant, I cannot help but imagine a world in which the ants are thousands of times larger than we are, what it might feel like to have such a creature step on us. I don’t care for fishing, even catch-and-release fishing, because that hook is so sharp, and oh, those poor fish with their big eyes who only wanted something to eat. Bless their tiny two-chambered little hearts. It just all seems so unfair!
I remember reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitude the summer I turned 20. There is a scene in that book where Abbey wonders whether he could kill a rabbit — “brain the little bastard” — with a rock. He does, and feels elation, concluding (rightly, probably): “we are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us.”
It didn’t matter whether he was correct; he horrified me. I put that book down (I was only on page 33, mind you) and never picked it up again.
I am a softie, a bleeding heart, a wuss.
And yet. I’ve had four decades of Thanksgiving turkey. I’ve never had a problem eating turkey; theoretically, I shouldn’t have a problem turning a bird into meat, then.
An aside: the whole idea of this post, I realize, has become utterly banal. Rediscovering one’s relationship to the food chain by killing your own food! Self-actualization through slaughter! Perhaps it was once a novel idea; but by this point it’s been done to death (pun intended). Michael Pollan did it. Barbara Kingsolver did it. The Dirty Life woman did it. This fella’ did it. So did this guy. This gal did it, with gorgeous if graphic photos. The interwebz are filled with stories like this. Everyone’s done it, such a ho-hum bore of a topic by now, really.
But here’s the thing: I hadn’t done it.
And why, some might ask, did I want to? Two reasons:
First, my neighbor who asked me if I’d like to help is the best neighbor one can have. When our basement flooded, he slogged through the water at midnight. When our leaf problem was unmanageable our first autumn in this house, he was here with rake and tarp. He hauled our fruit trees from the nursery, then helped us plant them in soil. He lends us equipment, clears sledding trails for the children in winter, supplies us with eggs and maple syrup, and generally helps us with whatever we need, whenever we need it. A guy like this? You help out.
Second, and more simply, I was curious. I was curious about the process, certainly. But just as important, I was curious about my own reaction to the process.
The process itself has been well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that. I’m not the one you should ask, anyway — I fumbled my way through the morning. Go here for a well-documented post with photos.
I’ll just offer up my rather simplified, and highly editorialized, set of instructions:
1. Grab turkey from pen. Try not to hear it cry out. Try not to anthropomorphize the squawks of the other birds as they watch their fellow bird get scooped up, carried away to the other side of the barn not to return again. Try not to imagine they are calling out to their departing friend, “They got you! Goodbye, goodbye!” Note: if you are the kind of person who carries spiders from the house and feels sorry for crushed ants and still resents Edward Abbey two decades after reading the first 33 pages of his book, this part may be difficult.
2. As you carry turkey, hold it close. First, because this is apparently calming to the bird. Second, because those are some large, strong, wings, and their flapping is seriously badass.
3. Place it head first in killing cone. At this point, they’ll get pretty calm.
4. Reach up through the bottom of the cone, grab the turkey’s head (he or she will resist. Be firm. If you are not firm, it just makes the whole thing harder on everyone, bird included).
5. Say a tiny prayer for this guy or gal. Or don’t. Slit throat.
6. If it is your first time, stop to be surprised at how dark the blood is, and just how much of it comes pouring out. Note, you need a bucket there.
7. The turkey will twitch. Hold its feet. This is apparently a nerve reaction; the bird is already dead. You’ve done it. Stop apologizing already.
8. Dunk it in hot water to loosen the feathers.
9. Pluck. This is a tedious business, even if you happen to be using a homemade whiz-bang plucker.
10. Gut. This involves chopping heads, cutting legs, slicing necks, peeling skin, and holding on the outside of a body things that were meant to remain inside. It means sticking your hands inside of places that were never meant to have hands there. You’ll need to tear at things and scoop things. It’s messy.
11. Chill. I mean chill the bird in ice water. I don’t mean relax. You’ve only done one bird so far. You’ve got more to go.
This is usually the point where first-timers wax philosophical, stop to consider their place in the universe, and decide they are better for having done this deed. I don’t know if I’m there yet, frankly. Instead, I offer up The Top 20 Things I Learned From Killing Barnyard Birds
1. Turkeys have a lot of blood. It’s kind of shocking at first.
2. It is true what they say: once you do a couple, you kind of turn off your own squeamishness. It becomes kind of mechanized. It is interesting, and kind of disturbing to me, how quickly something can go from upsetting to just a job. I don’t have a philosophical problem with killing turkeys for food; but I am aware that human’s abilities to turn off empathy, to mechanize death, doesn’t end at barnyard slaughter.
3. There is a foul odor. (a fowl odor! ha!) to this whole business. It’s not terrible, but you should decide not to focus on it. You’ll get used to that, too.
4. Plucking is tedious. It’s effing tedious, actually. Even when you get the visible feathers off, there are the pin feathers, little stubs of feathers, that must be removed, sometimes with pliers. Employ foul language (fowl language! There I go again! Ha! I slay me! And turkeys, I slay them too!) as needed.
5. There’s surprising beauty in turkey anatomy. Fresh gizzards, for example, have an iridescent blue-silver sheen to them that is as startling as it is dazzling. You will want to gaze at them some. Who knew?
6. Speaking of gizzards, you know how when you buy a turkey, there is a little bag with neck and heart and gizzard and stuff? (I routinely forget about these, and bake them inside the bird, still tied inside their plastic bag). I always assumed that those belonged to the bird I was cooking. But those parts almost certainly came from different birds – during the gutting, you just kind of throw all parts from all the birds into a single bucket, then sort it out later. Again, who knew?
7. The gizzards may be beautiful, but the windpipe? That one is hard to see. You may have already done a whole bunch of tough jobs by the time you peel that ribbed tube from the neck, but still. You might get a little dizzy when you see it. Which just goes to show you that you never know when the reality of this job will hit.
8. Different people have different levels of tolerance for the job. My friend Rebeccah volunteered to come along for the fun, and she was as clinical and unsqueamish as anyone I have ever seen. She would make an outstanding surgeon, or nurse, or mob hitman, and I have made a note to self: when a grizzly job needs doing, she is the one I will call.
9. It is helpful if the day is warm and sunny, and you are doing it with friends.
10. It is also helpful if one of those friends is an M.D./Ph.D., who can point out the different anatomical parts as you go. “Oh, that?” he might say casually as you hold up something that resembles a cannellini bean. “That’s a lymph node.”
11. As much as we talk about how expensive meat is, how expensive all food is, by the end of the day, you might think to yourself, “Wow. Seems like it’s not really expensive enough.” Because it’s just an awful lot of work. Every bird starts as an individual. And every individual has thousands of feathers, a strong neck, oil glands and other unsavory bits that must be removed, lungs and windpipes and other things that don’t want to give themselves up easily.
12. And this makes you appreciate all the people out there who do this work, all the time. True.
13. If you are doing it at a farm that has free-range chickens, the chickens will be nowhere to be seen during this whole process. The miniature donkey and miniature horse, however, might just be incredibly curious the whole while:
14. Wear rubber boots. They will get splashed with lots of things.
15. You might find yourself hungry as you do this business, which will seem wholly incongruous. But there it is. Your stomach is rumbling. Huh.
16. You might also find yourself imagining things. It will be hard for you to look at the plucked, headless carcasses without imagining them standing up and dancing, doing a little chorus line for you, right on the table where they were gutted. It makes no sense sometimes, what pops in your head.
17. Embrace the absurdity. You might as well.
18. Even if you get through the morning, you are not necessarily off the hook. Later that night, before going to bed, it is possible that certain images will replay themselves in your mind: the turkey’s beak opening and closing silently in the moments just before its throat is slit, for example. You might think to yourself, “did I really do that?” And even though you know that these animals died more humanely than most animals die, that death in the wild is almost always more violent and terrifying, that even if you hadn’t been there, they would have died anyway, you might still feel bad about it. When you look up at your neighbor’s yard, it might seem eerily quiet. This is called processing your processing. I just thought of that. Feel free to use it. You’re welcome.
19. You might eat less meat as a result. But if you’re like most, you won’t. Chances are, you will still eat your Thanksgiving turkey, and with some pride.
20. Life goes on. Not for the turkeys, of course. But for you. The more hours that pass, the less you think about it.
Would I do it again? I don’t know. But I’ve done it. I don’t claim to be original in that, or to have become self-actualized or anything. Mostly, I just feel a little muddled about the whole thing. But within that muddle is a tiny bit of pride: I unshielded myself from some sort of reality. For one sunny morning in November, I stood up and faced something that was, for me, kind of grim.
Look: here’s the proof: