It is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I am going to a friend’s farm to process a turkey for our dinner on Thursday. I’ve never killed an animal before. But I’ve eaten many. I don’t have any hesitation about the action I’m about to take. I know that I’m planning to cook and eat a turkey on Thanksgiving, and this is a nice way to slow things down, meet the bird, meet the farmer, and be responsible for more than just the “kitchen-to-dinner table” portion of the bird’s presence in my life.
The weather outside is magnificently shitty, even for Seattle. There is a hard rain coming down and it’s about 40 degrees. Seriously, this is a dark and nasty day. But that’s fine. It makes the contrast of spending most of my week indoors seem a bit exciting. The turkeys have other things to complain about aside from the weather. Off to the farm I go.
The turkeys we will process are a heritage breed called Bourbon Reds. Unlike most commercially available turkeys that have been bread with unnaturally over-sized breast meat (good for the farmer’s finances, but bad for evolution), these Bourbon Reds still have functioning brains, and they are in fact able to reproduce without human intervention… a sadly lost skill of most turkeys in the US, thanks to so much creative income focused breeding.
Well, I like bourbon, and I like turkeys, and I like supporting a group of turkeys (and their farmers) who still live and operate like members of nature. So bring on the carnage.
I hate to sound obvious or stupid, but processing a live animal involves knives and blood and death and yes, even a pile of eviscerated guts. There is no getting around this. It isn’t pretty if you’re at the dinner table, but the process doesn’t happen without this reality. The insides of the animal have to be removed, and they do not just fall out when you tip the bird upside down.
My pictures and descriptions below are pretty specific about what occurred during the entire process. If for any reason you think I’ll be censuring my pictures….you’re wrong. Turn back now and please tune in to my next blog posting if you aren’t up for the facts about preparing my Thanksgiving turkey. And if you’re still reading, I hope this is interesting for you. I had a fascinating and eye opening day. Its about time I set myself up for this really amazing experience, being so directly involved in my diet and cooking.
[END OF WARNING…you’re on your own now.]
Transition from “alive” to “not-so-alive”
Birds seem to become very mellow when they are held by their legs upside down. In many parts of the world, you will see chickens tied to a shoulder pole, being carried around. They really don’t struggle or put up a fuss when you hold them upside down. And guess what position they are in when you cut and bleed them to kill the bird? Upside down. It doesn’t remove all my anxiety of death, but the turkeys did not struggle or put up a fuss.
A Tom is carried upside down by his legs to the cones.
Still upside down, the turkey is placed into a metal cone. This is not fancy technology. The head will stick out the bottom, with the bird’s relaxed body in the cone. Seriously, they seem very relaxed.
A sharp knife cuts the vein on the side of the bird’s neck. The trachea and esophagus are left intact and not cut to make the cleaning process more precise.
While holding onto the two feet, the turkey is dunked into a 160 degree F scalding tank for 50 seconds to loosen the feathers from the skin. (Chickens are scalded for only 30 seconds). After scalding, you can pull a large feather out to test and ensure that everything loosened up like it should have.
Now it is time to remove all of the feathers. Pulling the feathers out by hand would take a bit of time, but it really isn’t that difficult to do. Probably a 5-10 minute task if you’re working without equipment like this rubber finger de-feather tumbler shown below. The bird is placed in this bucket, which spins and rubs the “fingers” across the birds skin, removing almost all of the feathers. The whole thing is over in about 20 seconds. The tub is rigged with water jets to spray on the bird in the middle of the de-feathering process. This helps move things along if too many feathers are covering the rubber fingers.
When the de-feathering is complete, this turkey looks exactly like something you would buy at the store and think of as food. Very little time has passed since a live animal was walking around the pen, and the moment when this clean, naked, and very familiar looking turkey is on a cutting board.
Next step is to cut off the feet. Suddenly, you see the shape of a drumstick. That looks familiar!
Cut the neck skin up toward the shoulders to give yourself enough room to start clearing the trachea and esophagus and then the body cavity. Like it or not, your hand is going into this hole to do a lot of work soon.
Create some separation between the neck bone and the neck skin. don’t cut the two tubes shown in this picture. They are the esophagus and the trachea. Pull gently on both tubes and let this guide your hand down the neck into the body of the bird as you separate connective tissue between the body and the organs. There is a lot of finger wiggling and tugging on this connective tissue. It is a blind act, and the first time sticking your hand into a bird is a bit mysterious. It is warm (the bird was very much alive only a few minutes ago), and it is not possible to see what you’re doing. The connective tissue is surprisingly tough and requires a lot of tugging to get through. By the 2nd and 3rd bird of the day, it all became much more familiar and easy to do. By the end of the day, I had done 3 turkeys, and finally a chicken too. The chicken proved to be a lot easier to process, being so much smaller , more tender, and simply easier to tidy up.
Organs are loosened and starting to come out through the neck hole.
Kitchen sheers are used to cut and remove the neck right around the shoulder point of the turkey. Then the head is cut from the neck. The neck and head go into stock. Nothing edible will be wasted. These birds were raised by hard working people, and it would be rude to throw something out that’s useful.
Now, onto the other end of the bird.
Cut a hole just above the vent (ass) of the turkey. This snip shouldn’t go too deep or it will puncture and rupture an intestine. There is no blood in the cavity, so once you cut a hole into the body cavity, you can see what you’re doing pretty well. But you have to cut though the skin and then a pretty tough membrane of tissue beneath the skin. Cut slowly and carefully the first few times. And if you do, you’ll see how much room there is to get it right. But if you rush, or if your knives aren’t sharp, you can easily have a mess.
The horizontal cut is now expanded with two vertical cuts around the vent. While cutting, you still have to remember NOT to cut into an intestine.
With bare hands, you now get to (lucky you, right?) reach into the cavity of the bird and disconnect the connective tissue that holds the organs in place, connecting the ribs with the insides of the bird. This “connective tissue” probably has a anatomical name, but the farmer never used that word. We said “connective tissue” many, many, many times on Sunday afternoon. There are intestines and other mysterious tubes of goo that should not be ruptured in the bird, but after processing a couple birds, this whole part of the process becomes MUCH more familiar than the first time reaching into the turkey.
In addition to a handful of guts that will be discarded, the inside of the bird also produces a heart, gizzard, and liver, all seen below. All are very good and edible organs. The rest of the intestines and fatty material was discarded.
At the end of the day, we had processed 8 turkeys and one chicken. The finished birds are stored in ice water while all the work is being finished up, and then they are moved into plastic bags and refrigerated.
That’s about it.
Locating a farmer who raises and sells heritage breed turkeys is not easy to do. And finding a farmer willing to include you and teach you the process of turning their livelihood into your dinner is pretty unique too. So, my thanks go out to Dog Mountain Farm http://www.dogmtnfarm.com/ for letting me spend Sunday working with the Turkeys. Good patient teachers are rare, and Cindy was amazing at letting me experiment, make mistakes, and work through a lot of turkeys….which ended up looking pretty damned good.
The experience has not turned me into a vegetarian by any means. But I do feel a lot more aware of the time and energy that goes into raising every bird on a farm, and into getting that bird into the refrigerated meat section at the grocery store (or into my home refrigerator in this case). Animal protein is a great thing to cook with and to eat. But I’m now ready to be a lot more particular about how frequently I “need” to eat chicken. I have a new found respect for the birds and the energy that goes into this whole process.
If you ever get the chance to slaughter and butcher your own meal, I hope you will give it a try.