Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nov 13: Turkey Slaughter

Did someone call us for dinner?

Warning: If you think these birds look like cute, feathery pets, or if you can't stomach the idea of eating meat, or if you don't know where your food comes from and you don't want to know, don't read further. This post is about killing turkeys. The posts about eating them will come next week.


However, if you look at that pen of turkeys up there and see this, you might be able to get through this one. It's not for pussies though.

I got up early yesterday and drove out to my friend Farmer Mak's farm to slaughter turkeys. In my bag I carried my camera, a bottle of water, and my scalpel, with extra blades. I wish I'd sharpened and brought my ax, but I'll know next time.

I rarely get the chance to kill my own meat. And you might be thinking, Well, duh, Reticula, who does that kind of shit? Just buy it at the grocery store like any other good American. And I would answer that it's so fucking easy to be an American, isn't it? Our privilege is endless. We can buy whatever we want and it's always so clean and nice for us that we don't ever have to admit we're eating something that once also ate, and slept, breathed, gobbled or mooed or oinked, and walked in its own shit. My personal belief is that I should only eat meat if I am willing to and capable of killing whatever I eat. Otherwise I should just leave the bacon for those who can kill the pig. I've held this belief for a long time, even during the 10 or so years I was a vegetarian. You can take it or leave it.

I also had another reason for wanting to kill some birds yesterday. I've read too many books and watched too many movies about the apocalypse to think it couldn't actually happen, at least in some form or another. We humans have worked very hard to make our environment unstable, and we've succeeded in some scary ways. I'm not sure what we might do next, so I think it's a good idea to maintain a diversity of skills. Robert Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
True that! I would add other skills to his list, like growing a garden, preserving food, sewing, riding a horse, building a fire, digging a grave .....  but you get my message, right? Who do you want to be in your tribe when the zombies come a knockin' on your door? Somebody who knows how to make a dry martini, shoot a bunch of video bad guys and text, or somebody who can do all of those things and survive? I already know who will be in my tribe.

So when my friend Farmer Mak said she was thinking about raising some turkeys last spring, I said I'd take a couple and I'd also come out and help her slaughter them. Not that I'm an expert on the kill. I used to go with my grandma in the fall to her friend Maria's farm to butcher chickens, which we would freeze in handy stackable 1/2-gallon milk cartons. It would take all day to kill and pluck dozens of chickens to get us through the winter. But that was decades ago and I wasn't doing the real work then.

And I will admit, I wondered if I still had the heartlessness to do it. I do. But the skills, not entirely. Yesterday, our third partner in crime, Thor, who has hunted and dressed out wild fowl, was both our expert and our muscle. Turkeys are big birds, so it's helpful to have your own 6 1/2-foot Viking to grab one by the legs and carry it into the barn. Could I butcher one myself? If I had to, I could now, but the work went a lot smoother with three of us. Humans live better in tribes.

Turkey, meet your executioners.

OK, that's the moral of the story. It came up front this time. The butchering is the end.

By the time I got to the farm, Thor had already drilled a fist-sized hole in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket and created a rope sling tied to a beam in the barn to hold it over the catch bucket. We carried in a gas grill and put a big pot of water on to heat. Then we set up a long stainless steel table next to the bleed buckets and laid out our sharp tools--a couple of knives and my scalpel for the delicate work.

A cool bi-valve next to my scalpel. And the reflection of a killer in the background.
I'm not going to give minute details of the killing and dressing out of the turkeys. I'll just hit the high points. Thor went out to the pen, picked a random bird, and carried it in by its feet. They don't struggle when they're upside down for some reason--not until their heads come off. Mak put her hand up through the hole in the bucket and as Thor lowered the bird in, she pulled the head through the hole. She looped a twine noose that was tied to the leg of the table around the neck. As she pulled the neck straight and Thor held the bucket, I cut through the turkey's neck with a big sharp knife, hitting the spine hard and fast so the spinal column was severed quickly. I would rather have used an ax or hatchet, but we didn't have one so the big, sharp knife had to suffice. Still with me?

Soon after the head's off, the bird goes into convulsions. Thor hung the bucket in the sling and held the bird in there until it was still. Then we took the bird out of the bucket and let it hang neck down and bleed out into the catch bucket for a while. When the bleeding stopped, Thor took it out of the bucket and dunked it into the hot water. (140-165 degrees so the skin doesn't cook). Scalding the bird makes the feathers come off much easier.

This is not my bucket list.
The first bird we butchered, Thor tried to hold over the bucket by its feet while we both plucked. (Farmer Mak had run to the store to get a metal trash can to use to scald the bird, but it turned out to have leaks.) Turkeys are too heavy to hold and pull on like that though, so we rigged a couple of nooses over another beam above the table and hung the bird by its feet. When we finished plucking, it looked like this.

Done with the outside.
We lopped off the feet, bagged them with the head, and washed the bird. Then we had to do the delicate work of taking out the guts. The scalpel came in handy for that. Much sharper than a box cutter or a paring knife.

There's a whole technique to freeing the esophagus, trachea and first stomach or crop, and then cutting out the vent (let's call it what it really is: a poop chute) and pulling everything out through the behind. It's precise work; if the bowels or stomachs are punctured, the meat can get contaminated. As Thor pulled the guts through, I grabbed the liver, heart, kidneys and gizzard to bag separately from the bird and from the head and feet. But first the gizzard had to be butterflied and the pouch filled with gravel and grassy stuff removed. None of us knew how to do that so Farmer Mak brought her laptop out ..... I sure hope the internets work when the zombies come.

Freeing the crop.

Thor and I realized with our first bird that they had been fed the night before and their insides were full of poop and undigested food. They need to fast for at least a day so there's less risk of contamination. We had planned to butcher 7 or 8 birds, but we ended up only doing the three that had to be done that day.

The "No Smoking" sign doesn't apply to turkeys.

As I said, I wasn't sure I still had the stomach for slaughtering. It had been a long time, and I'd always done it with a family member who did the real work. I remember my dad getting me up in the middle of the night one night after he'd tracked down Bambi's father a deer he'd shot with a bow hours before. He had it hung on the clothesline pole and needed help skinning it. But it was already gutted, and he took it to a butcher to cut up and package the next day. I helped with pheasants, quail, chickens but, except for fish, always as a kid helping an adult.

And there's a particular smell to butchering: a smell of blood, wet feathers, steaming guts. It's not a pleasant smell--in fact, some people can't tolerate it--but it was familiar and bearable. Other than a few Dexter flashbacks when blood sprayed or I was wielding the scalpel, it didn't bother me a bit. Maybe it's genetic. My biological grandparents were all four either doctors, nurses, farmers or both. This shit just doesn't make me squeamish.

My turkeys. Love you, girls.
My birds are still out at the farm, waiting to be butchered next weekend, their feathers marked with orange spray paint. One of them kept pecking at my sweatshirt zipper and the rivets in my jeans. I think she likes me, and she probably doesn't realize she's going to be the centerpiece of my Thanksgiving dinner. I always feed a crowd, so she will be appreciated. The other I'll save for Christmas.

So that's my butchering saga. This was Farmer Mak's first summer on her farm. She raised the turkeys, along with a flock of chickens and a calf named Stewie. She said T-bone just didn't roll off the tongue right. Stewie is next, but she's got somebody with skills and tools coming in to dress him out for the butcher. This time. Maybe next year we'll add beef cows to our slaughter bucket list.

Sorry, Stewie. You're next.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and this year, the food will be just that much more special. We'll be eating raw milk from my herd share, brown and green eggs from Mak's chickens, and a turkey I know personally.

And lest I sound at all callous about this business of slaughtering animals, I'd rather say I'm pragmatic. I honor the life of the animals, and I know Mak's birds have enjoyed a reasonably comfortable, free-ranging life up until now. I'm grateful for the food they will provide, and I intend to use everything except the feathers, head and feet for Thanksgiving dinner and carcass soup the next week. Hmmmm. Maybe I should make something with the bones and try to sell it on Etsy.....

What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year?

Keep laying, girls. Those eggs are the only thing keeping you out of the soup pot.


  1. I did my share of butchering and helping when we lived on our 5 acres. It never bothered me. Didn't seem to bother the kids. And they are the ones I will call if it becomes necessary to kill again. Them and my brother-in-law who is just waiting for the go ahead to start bringing squirrels from the yard to the table. This thanksgiving will all be food grown, raised, and/or slaughtered by someone else. I miss a sunny spot for my garden. I don't miss chickens, goats or hogs.

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  3. I don't come from a hunting family. But we were definitely meat-eaters - as long as it came on a nice styrofoam tray with cellophane over the top. We were able to look away from the reality of what that meant.

    I like the idea though, because then you know exactly what's going into your body. And I like the pics you added here.
    Back to the land, baby! I know who I need to find when the apocalypse comes - Carol, Hunter/Butcherer! :)

  4. I have to disagree with The Diplomat here. Hunters and gatherers were specializations to the same degree that computer programmer and engineer are today. To assume that primitive life was simplistic enough to allow for learning in many different areas is naive at best. Survival in a primitive culture took enormous amounts of effort. A 40 hour work week would have seemed like vacation to most of your "hunter-gatherer's."

    The ability to branch out, and learn from many disciplines and walks of life only became possible with civilization and education, i.e. the written word. The term Renaissance Man is incredibly apt, in that regard. As both my parents have told me (one of the times they have agreed on an issue) "You'll never stop learning."

    Of course, I'm on the Apocalypse Team.

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  6. Kristin, it just struck my how funny it is that we hunted squirrels in the woods, but would never have killed and eaten one from the yard. Strange standards, we humans.

  7. Sue, I wasn't sure how many pics to show. Some are pretty graphic, but it's a graphic process.

  8. Good to know, Diplomat. So we shouldn't try to find you and save you? Just know that Elvira will be at Walmart because she thinks nobody else will think about creating their fortress there.

    As for specialization, I think in most tribes people end up doing what they're best at. But it's always a good idea to know how to do other people's jobs if you have to.

  9. Interesting point, Drake, that it was "civilization" or publishing that allowed for less specialization. I expect that's counterintuitive for most people.

    Should we get jackets and badges for the Apocalypse Team, do you think?

  10. Fair enough Diplomat.

    No jackets or badges. That just makes you a target. "Hey look at me, I probably have food and ammo, cause I'm good at this stuff!"

  11. Fine. Beggar woman garb it is. Man, once you have kids you never have fun again.

  12. Whatever. Like we don't take you out to the club with us and stuff.

  13. One of your friends made me dance in a cage last time I went! In a cage! It's not bad enough on a pole, but in a cage? ;-)