After dealing with a pig or two and a cow (technically: a steer) this year, going and getting our own turkey for Thanksgiving seemed like the natural thing to do.
Last year, under circumstances I can't really recall, I entered into a bargain with a co-habitant of our little New England village. He would give me one of the turkeys from his flock for Thanksgiving, and I would in return give him a Christmas ham. It was barter in the best spirit of Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall's Dorset.
This year, John and I struck our bargain early. I had told him about both our beef and our cheese making efforts, and he was up for pretty much anything. I, on the other hand, am eyeing an aging population of chickens in my backyard, thinking that what's left of the original batch are aimed for the pot in the next six months or so. (For these survivors of fox, hawks - one of which invaded their chicken coop - it may seem like a rather sad end. But their egg-laying days start dwindling after their second full year, and other than one or two favorite 'personalities' that I'll keep around to retire gracefully with the younger birds, the lot of them will end life nobly gracing our table in the most delicious way we can arrange). Problem is, I've never killed a chicken before. And I admit, I'm a little nervous about trying to figure out how to do it on my own, even with all the resources of the internet at my fingertips.
So I asked John if I could join him for the turkey harvest this year as a part of our bargain. I'd help process, if he wouldn't mind imparting a little bit of wisdom and practical experience along the way. And I'd throw in some beef to sweeten the deal.
I left work a few minutes early on a crisp Monday-before-Thanksgiving evening to get home and change into something a bit more Turkey-slaughter appropriate. (which was a guess. I had a somewhat un-defined mental image of what I was about to do, but I figured pinstripes and loafers weren't called for.) When I was thus properly attired and I hollered out to the household that I was off, the Critter scrambled out of whatever hole she had been hiding in, and asked to go along.
I was a little surprised, and explained again that unlike the trip to pick up our pig and cow, these turkeys would still be alive when we pulled up. She shrugged and nodded, and hopped in the truck. OK. Well, then. Off we go.
When I pulled up, they were most of the way through killing the half-dozen birds from his 20 or so that he'd be harvesting pre-Thanksgiving. (John, the flock-raiser, is on the left. The other guy is Kevin, one of our local volunteer fire-fighters, and the guy that plows my driveway in the winter. It's a seriously small town.)
The prep went fairly quickly. Scald the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. Throw it in the 'de-plucker' (a device remarkably like a washing machine tub that spun the bird around in a big bucket with springy plastic 'fingers' on the sides, under constant streams of water), tug out the remaining 10% or so of feathers that remained by hand, and plop them up on the board to complete the dressing.
This is the point I sort of hesitatingly picked up a sharp knife and looked expectantly at John for direction. (Kevin had to scoot as he had company coming in for dinner).
Note the Critter calmly doing her Madlibs next to the carcasses. She wasn't quite as 'hands-on' as she had been with the beef, but didn't seem terribly bothered by any of this. That's my sweet, pragmatic omnivore for you.
John grabbed a second knife, and the both of us pulled a bird in front of us. Take off the feet first (at the knee joint', then head (somewhere near the top of the neck). Then the 'preening gland'. "There's a little nubby gland sits at the base of the turkey's tail, and you don't want to eat it," says John, as he pokes a bit at the turkey's rear.
Hmm. I closer take a look at my own turkey and spot a little protrusion on the top of the tail that looks kind of like a nipple, if turkey tails had nipples. "Is this it?" I ask.
John looked over and nodded. "Yeah, I think so."
Um. You think so? "Hey John, out of curiosity, how many times have you done this before?"
"Just the once last year. I didn't re-read the book again, but I'm pretty sure that's it."
My confidence in this venture started to fall a bit. But then I realized, if John had figured this out from a book, he and I could coach each other through it. At the very least, we could cheer each other on through our screw-ups.
So with a renewed enthusiasm, I snipped out what I was sincerely hoping was not really a nipple, and moved on. Trim the skin off the neck, and snip it off with pruning shears. Now flip the bird back over, and get a closer look at, to put it delicately, its nether-naughties.
"This is the vent," says John.
"The 'vent'? You mean the asshole." I replied.
"That's it. They call it the 'vent' in politer company," says my coach.
"Well, my bird's 'vent' is dribbling crap."
"That's odd," John said, taking a look over at my bird, "I cut their food off yesterday so that they'd be fairly empty. Guess you're just lucky."
I got lucky twice that evening. Two out of three of the birds - and the only two out of the six we managed - shared their last meal with me along the way. Lucky me. I smelled like turkey crap for hours. I should buy more lottery tickets.
Last steps. Cut a circle around the 'vent', then a three inch slit beneath the rib cage. Reach in and tug out pretty much everything that's not nailed down. At some point during the process, the turkey had turned from from "bird" to "meat," and that had made the process more clinical and less bothersome. But sticking my hand in that first bird was still a little squeamish for me. It was warm, and full of odd shapes. The gizzard is rock hard, for one thing. I can't figure that out. I'm hoping that none of my gutty-parts feel like that (although I've had some experiences after eating a particularly adventurous menu of Indian food that left me in doubt). But if you do it right, one or two good tugs, and the whole of the non-edible mass comes out in a single piece. Or so John showed me.
I never managed to do it quite right, and usually ended up scooping the last bits out in a couple of messier handfuls. Ah well. Less style points for me.
In the end, we wrapped these birds up, selected a pretty decent bird for our Thanksgiving repast (around thirteen pounds), and took the now-obligatory shot of the Critter holding a bag of meat.
Thanksgiving for us this year is quiet affair, just-us-family, a quiet day, a good bottle of wine and a lovely meal. I have plenty to be thankful for. This year has been happily productive, and we all are healthy and content. We've seen and made good friends, and for the first time in a very long time, have played hosts to my parents, my brother and his wife and their newly adopted daughter. We've settled into the New England rhythms of the seasons, and are eagerly anticipating the first snow - a long way from where our Georgia-California upbringings had left us our first holiday season in our house-become-home.
Mostly, I'm just thankful that we're together to celebrate another holiday season, and enjoy the very delicious fruits of our labor.