Mary’s story about Thanksgiving
Mary is one of my fantastic customers, and she shared this story with me, which she wrote about last fall. It really describes the day perfectly. Thanks Mary!
Homage to a Turkey
It was a crisp fall day just before Thanksgiving, 2009. Charley and I were on our way to our friend Khaiti’s farm, a tiny 2 acre plot on the outskirts of a housing development near Osceola, to pick up our holiday bird. Earlier in the summer I asked Khaiti if I could be in on the butchering. As the day approached I became more apprehensive. Did I really want to be the cause of the death of this animal? As we drove the country road I remember thinking that if it had turned out we couldn’t butcher that day it would have been fine with me. But the sky didn’t fall, it wasn’t pouring rain and we didn’t get a flat tire on the way. Nor did we get lost and even pulled into the farm 15 minutes early. We got out of the car to the squawking of ducks and turkeys and saw the faces of the curious goats peering out from the shed.
Khaiti’s land is completely dedicated to her desire to live sustainably. She has a plastic hoop house full of Khaki Campbell ducks, a breed that was born to lay eggs and what yuumy eggs they are. Her turkeys were in a huge penned area close to the small pasture and little barn that houses her milk goats. Khaiti absolutely adores her animals yet has no problem eating them when the time comes. How I admire that girl. When she is talking with her animals or interacting with them the sense of peace and compassion that flows from the universe through her and to the animals is palpable. She was a vegan eater for over a decade not because she was opposed to meat eating but because of the way the animals were raised.
Khaiti was just setting up her temporary outdoor abattoir. When I first saw the turkeys running around in the pen I had another moment of trepidation. These turkeys were lovely, strutting around making their strange gobbles and pecking at unseen things in the dirt. Our turkey, a Bronze Broad-breasted breed, had lived a healthy natural 6 months instead of the 3 months it takes for a commercial turkey.
We waited for the word to start. Khaiti was understandably nervous. She had butchered some turkeys previously so was no stranger to what had to be done but this was the first time she was in command. Charley and I, certainly, had no experience in killing another living thing on purpose although we had had our share of run-ins with deer. We were timidly trying to catch the turkeys chasing them back and forth, I am sure we looked like something out of the Marx Brothers. Turkeys are very strong creatures. You have to contain the wings, not that they will fly away but it is hard to get close to them if the wings are a-flappin. After chasing them around for a couple of minutes we had them contained. Charley held the turkey and when Khaiti made the slit, the death was gentle and peaceful. Khaiti thanked the bird, said she was grateful for it’s life. It seemed somehow sacred. I couldn’t look at the first turkey as it was dying. I turned away and when I looked back, the neck was cut and the head off at an awkward angle. Blood pulsed out and then slowed. All this took less than two minutes. The bird was still glorious with colored feathers but not moving except for a random twitch to remind us that it had been alive a minute ago. I did look at the next slitting. And there was that one split second when I wanted to give this bird a stay of execution. Because I did not think I was worth its death. But I eat meat and accept the fact that this has to be done. I knew this bird was loved. That it had a good turkey life.
Our turkey was hoisted up by the feet to hang upside down at the end of the clothes line. The blood continued to drip out as we started to pluck. How weird that the body was still warm but it did make the plucking of feathers very easy, with a simple tug in the opposite direction the feathers lay they came off in great tufts and bunches. First the long feathers of the back and wing, tough and stiff with quills leaving a mark whence they had joined with the skin. Feathers began to pile up on the ground covering up the fallen leaves and where, just 5 minutes ago, we had watched the blood seep slowly away. The softer feathers of the neck and breast were a little harder to grasp and pull but the bird was still warm when we finally finished.
Khaiti asked if we wanted to gut the birds but I declined and I watched her. It was amazing to watch her. She talked about what she was doing and why and almost reverently pulled out the guts. I know the words make it sound a lot grosser than what it was. It just seemed natural. With the body cavity cleaned and feathers off, the only decision left for us was whether we wanted our birds with head and feet on or off. I chose head off, feet on. The turkey went into a huge vat with icy water straight out of Khaiti’s well to finish off the job of cooling down the bird. We packed our 20 pound dressed turkey in ice in our large cooler. As we drove away all I could think about was how good that turkey was going to be. There were no thoughts of the fear that I would want to become vegan that I had when I was driving out to her farm.
We had a most delicious turkey. The turkey was baked without stuffing and with out its feet. For some reason I did not want to sully the flavor with anything. I roasted it for 2 hours breast down and then 2 hours breast up sprinkled with herbs de Provence and salt. There was at least 2 cups of fat that dripped off the bird. Our guests were my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We gorged on that turkey, the four of us. The dark meat was rich with flavor and required teeth. Not that it was tough but the texture was certainly not mushy. And the breast meat, was firm and juicy. Because of our amateur attempts at de-feathering there wasn’t as much crisp, mahogany brown skin as charley and his sister would have liked due to recalcitrant tufts of down and pieces of feathers. To go with the turkey I made the Loretta’s famous recipe for dressing and everyone’s favorite, green bean casserole as well as my fathers favorite, red cabbage. Mostly, I believe we ate turkey and gravy.
I used the carcass for broth along with any uneaten skin, gnarly bits and the whacked off feet with just a bit off salt in the water to encourage the marvelous flavor of the bird to seep into the broth. Four hours later, with the house smelling again of turkey I strained off the bones, skimmed off the fat (to save for frying potatoes) and was left with a gallon of golden broth that as it cooled turned gelatinous and yummy. I froze a quart of broth along with a generous portion of breast meat for hot turkey sandwiches to share with the kids at Christmas time. We ate turkey leftovers and soup and sandwiches and dumplings and gravy, 2 meals a day for a week. And I never got sick of it.
Butchering an animal was a seminal experience for me. In short order I truly understood that the meat we eat comes from a living creature. It isn’t produced with out effort. It is so easy to forget that when you see nice neat packages in the store. It was a privilege to be there, to connect with life and death that way. I have since watched the documentary “Food, Inc” and vow I will never ever buy meat from someone who doesn’t love their animals. I want Khaiti or other farmers like her to be raising my food because peace and compassion is imbued in it. And oh, sweet Martha, how absolutely delicious it is.