Diary of a Transplant: Thanksgiving Prep

  |  November 22, 2012

My transformation from Brooklyn foodie mom wrestling the crowds at the Park Slope Food Coop into a goose-killing country gal just may be complete. 

We took the turkeys in to be processed last weekend.

Ever since we moved upstate, we have slaughtered our own chickens, but the turkeys were pretty big and wouldn’t fit into our regular killing cones. Also I was trading two of them with friends. I wanted to make sure they were done right, with no amateur mistakes like torn skin or ruptured gall bladders (which leaves a bad taste). Also, I just didn’t want to deal with it. I love animals and don’t really like killing them. We are always having to gird ourselves for the task.

There is a small, family-run, USDA slaughterhouse pretty close to us. They charge $8 to kill, pluck and eviscerate a turkey. I figured I’d give them a try.

A couple weeks before Thanksgiving, Susie, a farmer friend called and asked if I could help her process some geese down at her place. Last year I traded a few hours of labor for one of her $90, organic, no-soy or GMO-feed geese. We roasted it for New Year’s Eve, and cooked everything in rendered goose fat for weeks. It was spectacular. Now I’m on Susie’s list.

It’s weird to say, but it’s sort of fun to get together for a slaughter. Not the killing part. None of us likes that. Susie brings down the geese one by one; she doesn’t want to scare them or have them smell the blood, or whatever. She carries them gently, and inverts them into the cone as quickly and carefully as she can. “I’m sorry, baby,” she’ll say, and then cut their heads off. It’s over in seconds. We hold them still until they stop kicking and the blood has drained, and then we put them in the plucker.  We are respectful and sorry and grateful. And after that it gets kind of fun. You start with this beautiful, perfect animal, and then it is chaotic and weird and somber as they go from living to dead, and then you go along, plucking and trimming, and soon you begin to have this beautiful piece of food.

There is lots of chatting and laughing while we work. Last time, Susie’s mother-in-law came by and sat in the kitchen and talked with us. I’m sorry to say this, because killing shouldn’t be fun. But after all, there is a long tradition of celebrations after the slaughter. In Edna Lewis’ classic cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, she talks about hog-killing as a time of celebration, and so does Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods. Feasts usually follow slaughter, so it kind of makes sense.

I always feel like I’m not much help at Susie’s. I’m not that good at eviscerating, so I usually just do the plucking, and help carry water or shut the gate so the dogs don’t get out. But I realized recently that I think the biggest thing I bring is moral support. Susie cares for her animals as much as I care for mine. She believes that they should have a good life, and a quick death. She knows that I share her beliefs. We have talked about how the discomfort we feel over killing is a worthy feeling, that it’s what keeps us trying all the time to be as humane and careful as we can be.

It was a little different at the slaughterhouse. This is a small slaughterhouse, not a big industrial monster. The last time I went to Susie’s, I met the woman who owns it, Dana. She is friends with Susie, and we spent a morning slaughtering geese together. I don’t know what I expected a slaughterhouse owner to look like, but Dana is adorable and friendly and cute. And tough. She impressed the hell out of me that first day, when she eviscerated a duck with her bare hands. What takes me 30 minutes took her about ten seconds.

When we pulled up to Dana’s slaughterhouse the Saturday before Thanksgiving, with our four turkeys in crates in the back of the truck, there was already a truck in line ahead of us. A bunch of white turkeys in the back of the truck were bobbing their heads and making that famous gobbling sound.

Two guys were going into the truck, one by one, and pulling a turkey out. Dana had told me they had 850 turkeys scheduled, over the course of about 10 days .The guys were moving quickly. They took the turkeys the fastest way, which was by the feet, and carried them upside down into the building, the turkeys’ wings flapping madly. The guys were thoroughly spattered with blood, and their forearms were stained a pale magenta. “Hey, how ya doing?” one said in a friendly way. “Dropping off?”

My son, who is 13, helped me carry the two crates over to the door of the slaughterhouse. We put them in a patch of sun.

The elderly guy who had the truck of turkeys looked at my daughter, who is is 9. “What did the turkey say to the chicken?” he asked. She stared back at him for a second and then shrugged.

“Nothing. Turkeys can’t talk!” She smiled and rolled her eyes.

One of the guys came over with a clipboard, found my name and checked me off with his stained hands. “We’ll give you a call when they’re ready.” And that was that.

It wasn’t the hardest thing to leave them. I didn’t particularly like our turkeys. They came to us as day-old poults, beautiful and swan-like with downy blond fuzz. Then they were funny teenagers who followed us around the farm; and suddenly they were horrendous adults that reminded me of reptiles with their weird, strangely beautiful heads that changed from pale red to lavender when they were excited. And those snoods: that dangly thing that hangs down off their beaks when they are excited, and retreats into a little stub when they are calm. Our toms were imprinted on us, and would stand outside our kitchen window, fluffing their feathers and elongating their snoods, trembling with effort.

They had the run of our farm. They were Bourbon Reds, a heritage breed that likes to forage and is closely related to the wild turkey. They don’t get really huge like the mammoth Broad Breasted White turkeys that most Americans eat. At seven months, our Toms were as big as a Bourbon Red is expected to get, about 20 lbs.

They were also predators. Ours killed several chicks, and one gorgeous little brown Welsumer hen that was almost full-grown. They pecked her eye out, and she burrowed her way into a roll of chicken wire and died there. They also pulled a chick out of its brooder cage and killed it. And they scalped a younger hen. We found her, still breathing but with a bare and bloody head. We tried to save her, but she was dead in the morning. There were others, too.

We couldn’t wait for the turkeys to be gone so our smaller chickens could free-range again, and so our dog could once again roam the barnyard without being attacked. The turkeys were a huge pain in the neck, but they were living creatures, and I couldn’t help but empathize with them as we drove away from the slaughterhouse. I hoped it would be over soon.

The same day that we dropped off the turkeys, a friend texted and said he’d shot a deer for us. He is an avid hunter with a vegetarian wife. We’d been telling him for months that we’d love to take a deer off his hands. Grass-fed local meat, naturally-raised, pastured? Yes.

Later that day I drove with our friend to another processing site. The white-coated butcher greeted us warmly, and opened his garage door. Three deer in various states of processing hung from hooks. Our friend dragged the doe out of the truck. She left a smear of blood in the truck bed, and her head landed with a thud on the concrete garage floor. I didn’t like that her head landed like that, and I don’t think my friend did, either. He made a quick movement like he wished he’d caught her head. But that’s what happened. I’m not going to sugar coat it. Another clipboard: I checked off the kinds of cuts I wanted — steaks, chops, burger — and wrote down my cell number, and we left.

Three things happened the next day, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. 1. We picked up the turkeys, and watched as the guys, bloodier than ever, gently transferred someone else’s white turkeys out of the crates we’d left, everybody apologizing for using our crates, not that we cared. 2. We drove to meet some friends and traded our largest turkey (16 pounds, processed) for 18 pounds of pork they’d raised and cured. (Regarding the extra poundage: “Hey, Merry Christmas.”) 3. We picked up the venison, carrying out three grocery bags of meat wrapped in white paper bundles, and a garbage bag containing the hide, which my son intends to tan.

That night my son and I talked about the turkeys, and pondered whether or not the guys were kind enough to the turkeys before they killed them, and whether or not we should take other animals in the future to Dana’s. We may have lamb or goat kids at some point in the future, and we always have roosters. And we’ll have turkeys again next year.

“I think they were being especially gentle to the turkeys when they took them out of our crates because we were there,” I said.

“I didn’t think they were that gentle,” my son said.

I said I didn’t think we could hand over all our dirty work to these guys, and expect them to be as kind with 850 turkeys they didn’t raise as we would be with our four turkeys that we’d raised and protected since they were a day old.

Dana’s is a small slaughterhouse, and the guys who worked there don’t slaughter every day all day. They are probably friends of Dana’s who were helping her during her busy week-before-Thanksgiving. They seemed like nice, decent guys, and they weren’t being cruel, as far as we saw. There was none of the stomping or kicking or molesting of live turkeys that you can easily read about on PETA sites, atrocities that happen in the massive slaughterhouses. I didn’t particularly like how they held the turkeys upside down and let their wings flap wildly as they carried them out of the truck. Susie wouldn’t have done that. But you can’t expect someone to slaughter animals all day, on a busy schedule, without losing some gentleness. They have a job to get done, and they need to be fast. I didn’t want to do it, and that is part of the price I paid. For every step we take away from the process of producing food, we lose some input into how it’s done.

My images from the weekend – blood-stained forearms, the garage door opening up to reveal hanging carcasses, meat hooks, the blood-streaked truck bed– are standard fare in a certain genre of horror movie. But there were no psychopaths or serial killers here. Everybody we encountered was friendly and normal, hard at work doing a dirty job none of us wanted.

It is ironic that in our collective efforts over the last century to convince ourselves that blood and death don’t exist – that death is not thoroughly commonplace, which it is — we have forced these acts from our sight into dark barns and factories and horror movies. We have handed over the act of killing to people who are either deranged (in horror movies) or poor and undervalued (minimum wage workers in slaughterhouses). By doing this we have made death far more vicious and cruel for the animals, and the act more dehumanizing and brutal for the workers. We have given our slaughterhouse workers a terrible chore: the hard part, repetitively until it is meaningless, with none of the celebration, and no room for the small amount of mourning that happens with every animal. You cannot expect them to kill again and again, without the support of family and friends, without some connection to the animals they are killing, and think they will not forgo some of their humanity and their decency.

I don’t know if I can totally follow Susie’s lead, but I am working toward it.

We started the weekend with a freezer that held a lot of frozen squash and tomatoes, and not much else. We ended it with nearly 80 pounds of meat. It was a bloody weekend, but for days afterwards I felt happy and grateful – to the animals, to our rural lives that let us have a hand in raising our own food, and to the various friends and neighbors who helped us kill and process a long winter’s worth of meals.

I am ready to celebrate.

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