Spilling Blood and Giving Thanks

*DISCLAIMER: Photos ahead of turkey killing and processing. I don’t think most people will have any trouble with them, but if you’re squeamish, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Morning broke socked-in and foggy, new snow dusted the Cascades to the north. Fall’s color hadn’t completely blown off the trees yet, the gray punctuated with reds and yellows. The drive to one of my favorite farms (Rogue Valley Brambles) descends into the Rogue Valley from the edge of the Siskiyou Mountains where I live in Ashland, down highway 99 to the small town of Talent, and into the pear orchards where the valley floor opens up between the shoulders of forested hills. Every time I make this drive it scratches anew an old lingering sadness at the failure, years ago, of my husband and I to make several acres of land our own when the well failed to yield enough water. Out of sheer exhaustion at the whole process, we blinked and ended up in a lovely, but decidedly in-town home with not a lot of yard and too many insatiable deer to consider homesteading. But that’s another story.

Every Saturday, I make this same drive to pick up eggs, raw milk, olive oil, and whatever else catches my eye. Maybe olive oil soap, garlic, apples, or yogurt made fresh from the milk. But this morning, I was heading out to hopefully help and not hinder in the process of Thanksgiving turkey slaughtering.

I was thrilled to take advantage of a local turkey. For years I had wanted one, but couldn’t figure out if any existed. So I always ended up with an organic one from the store, feeling vaguely like I had lost some contest and this turkey was the consolation prize. As I discovered, that’s because demand is high and loyal customers place their orders quickly.

Upon arriving at the old barn set a ways down a muddy lane, I immediately regretted my footwear. I’ve been shopping around for a good pair of insulated rain boots but haven’t pulled the trigger yet, and as soon as I saw the puddles created during processing, I knew my little Merrell barefoot running shoes were going to fail me. I clucked inwardly at the city slicker I am, grabbed a heavy-duty plastic apron off a hook, and jumped in.

Years and a whole other lifetime ago, I helped out at a friend’s grandparents’ pecan farm for harvest. Even though there was this funny machine with a huge pincher on it to grab the trunk and shake all the pecans out, there was a lot of heavy lifting and dragging big tarps around. All pre-Paleo of course, so between my blood sugar woes, the cold weather, and a distinct lack of appreciation for the exercise, I was exhausted. Even my friend’s grandma’s home cooking could barely cheer me up.

Keeping that experience in mind, I tried to focus on where I could be useful. My OCD tendencies turned out to be useful with plucking. Bonus: the turkeys were fresh out of the scalder and still warm, which kept my hands toasty. In order to preserve the skin of the turkeys—important when folks want a masterpiece holiday bird—the turkeys ran through the plucking drum for only a little while, leaving plenty of tough feathers to pull by hand and little feather tip nubs to dig out with pliers. I watched as Susan, one of the owners, eviscerated the turkey, starting with a sharp knife and ending with a victorious removal of the crop. I decided to steer clear of that, fearing my inefficiency and ineptitude, and focused on plucking birds and skinning their feet.

The scene was pure farm life. Chickens rambled through the processing site, scratching at the piles of feathers adorning the ground. The dogs would try to look nonchalant as they nosed straight for the buckets of discarded bits—one bucket of scraps for the pigs and another for compost. Even the owners’ 18-month-old made an appearance with his grandmother, playing with the spray coming off the hose bib. Then, every so often, Ken would show up with handfuls of turkeys to unload onto one of the picnic tables.

I wasn’t expecting to hang out for lunch, but Susan’s mom made a wonderful spread for all the workers: pumpkin polenta, salad with the farm’s olive oil and balsamic, steamed veggies, and a huge slab of pumpkin bars optimistically carved into tiny bites. I think everyone had at least three. The homemade meal was warm, tasty, and satisfying, eaten in the open air surrounded by hills, trees, chickens, and friendly people who value honest food as much as I do. I quietly gave thanks for such wonderful communion.

After lunch, I decided I needed to follow Ken to the killing field. The turkeys were kept in a nearby pasture in portable pens. As we stomped through the thick field to the pens of both heritage (closer to wild turkeys) and standard (the ones with huge breasts bred for human consumption), I remarked on how healthy the pasture looked with so many varieties of greens, and Ken responded that the cows prefer this field over the others which are more monocrop. Of course, my mind went immediately to springtime when I’m sure it’s populated with tons of dandelion, chickweed, plantain, and sheep sorrel that’s just as tasty for humans as for cows.

A board straddled two of the pens and from the board dangled three tarp-fabric cones. Blood spattered the grassy green beneath these gallows. Ken was making his way through the heritage turkeys, and entered the pen. Immediately they got nervous and made for the back of the enclosure. The standards next door watched in composed curiosity. After wrangling one down, Ken placed it head-first into a cone. He grabbed a knife, held the turkey’s head in one hand, and expertly sliced the veins on both sides of its throat. The turkey blinked several times, but was otherwise calm while its blood poured onto the ground. Its mouth opened and closed periodically. After some time, the eyes shut and the inevitable nervous system reaction of convulsions set in, the heart and brain shutting down.

I decided it was my turn. My biggest fear was that the turkey would suffer from my clumsy attempts at killing it. Ken placed a black-feathered one in the cone for me. I placed my hand around its throat and stroked its soft head gently in some attempt to calm it—a turkey being restrained upside down in a fabric straight-jacket. I grabbed the knife and tried to slice confidently, but the skin on their necks is rubbery and tough. I wished the knife was sharper. I pushed harder and the vein opened a little, though with more of a squirt than the gush that Ken could produce so quickly. I tried the other side. I sliced more aggressively and felt the hot blood pour over my hand. I held the head gently until I felt the muscles in the neck relax a little, then I stood back and watched the turkey die.

The killing itself wasn’t difficult. No part of this process was. It all felt very…of the earth. And when you see how it’s done, where your food comes from, who takes care of it, then a feeling of reverence for that food can begin to flourish. This is something lost on most generations alive today. There is nothing about a sterile slab of factory-farmed flesh packed in a styrofoam container and shrink-wrapped in plastic that can possibly inspire this sensation—nevermind “food” that begins in a factory and is produced on an assembly line without so much as ever touching a human hand. And when we can accept that we humans are of this earth, no matter how many rocketships and sky-scrapers we concoct, then we can begin to understand our role here.

I didn’t get a chance to kill the actual turkey I brought home to feed my family on Thanksgiving. I’m hoping next year maybe I’ll follow the process the whole way through from start to finish. The bird I got was a healthy 12-pounder with a spot of green on a wing tip, the remnant of an injury. This is partly why factory farms keep their birds confined and sequestered, to prevent imperfections from marring the “product.” I’d rather have a turkey with an injury from living a real turkey existence than any poor, cooped up, unhealthy bird with breasts so large it can’t even walk. Besides, I prefer dark meat.

I brought my bird home and placed it in the fridge. I was already making plans for it: brining, butter, lemons, herbs, gravy, making stock with the carcass. It had made the leap from a living, breathing turkey just that morning to a headless, gutless object of culinary desire. But I know that when the day comes and I’m seated around the table with my husband, our daughter, and my husband’s parents that I will give thanks for the sacrifices made so that our holiday could happen—my husband working hard and late for us, my husband’s parents raising such a wonderful man, Susan and Ken who raised and took care of the turkey for us, and for this turkey who will be consumed and will nourish our lives for months to come. There is much for which to give thanks.


11 Responses to “Spilling Blood and Giving Thanks”

  1. Well done.
    I’ve been “processing” chickens & one turkey since we moved out here almost two years ago. It’s….interesting. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, city girl that I am/was.

    • Thanks for reading! Yeah, it reminded me a little of when my husband and I fish in the backcountry. I usually catch so he has to kill them by whacking their heads against a rock. It affected us more than we expected, but still not as much as one might think. Same with the turkeys, but the appreciation gained is greater than any discomfort felt.

  2. Wow, I give you a lot of credit. I don’t think I could do that because I’d become an emotional wreck. Props to you though! Quick question, do you have any recommendations for a brine or can you tell me what you do? This is my first year making a whole turkey. I got a local, pasture-raised bird too and am pretty excited. I just don’t want to screw it up!

    • This is my STOP (Standard Turkey Operating Procedure): 1) Brine for at least 24 hours ahead of time. Not sure where you’re at in PDX, but the Crate & Barrel in Tigard should have a great brining kit with spices and a huge plastic bag to put the turkey in (call first before you head down there!). It does have sugar in it, which I don’t sweat (the brine gets rinsed off), but if you want zero sugar action, just search for a simple salt brine recipe online. If you can’t find a big heavy-duty bag to brine the turkey in, put it in a cooler or other container big enough with plenty of ice to keep it cold. 2) Rinse the bird inside and out, make sure to remove the neck, giblets, and other funny bits from both the front and back cavities. Pat it dry with paper towels and sprinkle it with S&P. 3) Make an herb butter in the food processor with sage, rosemary, garlic, and thyme. Rub it all over the bird and under the skin. 4) Cut 2 lemons and 1 onion into quarters and place in cavity, along with more of the whole herbs if any are left. 5) Tie legs together, and place on a roasting rack in a pan with some chicken broth in the bottom. Cover the turkey with foil, not tightly, just enough to cover the top to prevent premature burning. 6) Roast in a 350 degree oven for several hours. I literally check it every hour, maybe every half hour when temp gets close. If broth in bottom of pan is getting dry, add more as needed. For some reason, a brined bird seems to cook faster, usually within four hours. Pull the foil off the bird in the last half hour to brown the skin. When leg temp reaches 160 degrees, pull out of oven, tent with foil, let meat rest to redistribute the juices, and temp should come up even more. The gravy made from the juice in the pan is outta sight.

      Phew! I should’ve just made that its own blog post! ;) Good luck on your first turkey!

      • Wow, thank you for the detailed response! That’s super helpful. My bird will probably cook in even less time then because it’s petite sized – between 6 and 10 lbs. I won’t know exactly until I pick it up from New Season’s today.

  3. Wow, I didn’t know that you guys did the small farm thing once. We did too. In fact, we still own it and hope to put it on the market in January. We moved into Hillsboro/Beaverton last month and I question our decision with every drive out into the country! Good for you for participating in the process. It really does make the important connection to our food, doesn’t it?

    • Well, we dreamed about the small farm thing for years, then failed to get the water. We had a contingency plan, so we were able to back out of the deal. So we never got started. This was all pre-kiddo, so there’s a part of me that’s grateful I had the energy to devote to her early on, but now I’m beginning to get itchy about it again. But thanks to global economics and our impatience, we’ll be in this house for a good while. Maybe someday.
      What was behind your decision to move to town?

      • Severe amounts of stress, actually. We were trying to do it while both working full time (no kids) and it was quite literally, killing me. We LOVED it though and we have reworked a lot of our life to allow us to do it again, free and clear, in about 10 years or so. Until then, we are saving our pennies and making a point of getting out and enjoying this amazing state we live in (something that is exceedingly hard to do when you have to milk goats twice a day!). :-)

        We feel beyond blessed that we live in a place where we can afford to buy the healthiest food possible without having to grow it ourselves. Because of this, we are ok with our current ‘in town’ lifestyle…for now, anyway.

      • Aha, yes. I currently have a bad case of the travel bug, and I imagine it’s hard (and expensive) to find good farm sitters. Constantly vacillating from wanting more ties and fewer. Story of life, I ‘spose. ;)

  4. My friend and I found pasture raised, grass fed turkey’s semi-locally this year. We showed up a little early, while they were in the process of making them ready. It was quite an experience. I got to see my turkey’s “last meal” of pure grass as he cut the gizzard open for me. It was awesome to know how my turkey was raised and fed.
    The ironic part is I live across the road from another turkey farm where the the birds are sequestered and I’m not sure what they are fed, but it was well worth the drive. A tradition we plan on keeping next year.

  5. I think that it’s important as a meat eater to experience killing and prepping your meat. There is nothing more basic and primal about understanding the circle of life when you do this. I raised chickens for a bit and “chicken out” when it was time to turn them into stew chickens but my goal is to one day have a small hobby farm where we raise chickens , pigs and cow for meat. Good job! I

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