Hard as it may be for some consumers to believe, that turkey on the Thanksgiving table once was a living, breathing animal. Most turkeys for public consumption are raised in huge confinement lots, where they live a pretty miserable existence, all jammed together waiting for their date with the executioner. But at Mike Klein's farm in Brandywine, MD, about 35 miles outside the District of Coumbia in Prince George's County, a small flock lives on pasture. Their collapsible pen is moved from place to place so the turkeys can live outdoors and have fresh vegetagation and bugs to peck at.
Mike and his wife Michelle run a CSA subscription off their small truck patch, including lots of different vegetables, laying hens, roasters and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Mike's flock was smaller than usual this year, only around 25 birds. But it's still tough work. They eat their way through 100 pounds of feed each day and they are always in danger of escaping their pen and being eaten by the local foxes.
Finally it comes time to slaughter the turkeys and The Slow Cook lends a hand. This year it was a glorious day, sunny and calm, the farm surrounded by oak and hickory trees in a blaze of fall colors. It was a bit warmer than Mike and Michelle would like. But it felt great to the rest of the volunteer crew. Here is a gallery of photos showing the turkey butchering operation. If the sight of dead animals makes you queasy, this would be a good time to avert your eyes.
The breed of turkey Mike raised this year is a double-breasted bronze. The first task is to capture the birds, which dart around the pen to avoid us and sometimes find their way over the top of the electrified fencing and have to be chased back inside. We try to grab a bird by its leg, avoiding the flapping wings. The turkeys don't fly much, but their powerful wings can leave a nasty bruise or a bloody nose if you aren't careful. We hogtie the birds and cart them six-at-a-time back to the open-air slaughtering area.
The turkeys are treated gently while they wait their turn to be killed. We lift them out of the cart and hang them from hooks on a steel A-frame, so their heads are just a few inches above the ground. They hang very calmly and quietly. We say a few words to a turkey as we take its head in the left hand, then slit the jugular vein with a quick motion of a sharp knife.
So far, there has been hardly a word of protest from the turkeys. Even after their throats are cut, they dangle calmly from the A-frame. Then, as the last of the blood drains out of them and they lose consciousness, the birds flap their wings as if trying to escape. Apparently this is an involuntary reaction of the turkey brain as it thirsts for blood and oxygen. Perhaps animal rights groups would disapprove, but the turkeys have to die so we can eat, and to me, this method of killing seems extremely humane. Except for a few seconds of flapping wings, the whole process is reverential and calm, to the point of serene.
Mike lifts the turkey carcasses off their hooks and lowers them by the feet into a tub of scalding water, around 160 degrees. A minute or so is all it takes to loosen the feathers for plucking. Too long and the skin is damages.
Mike uses a machine to remove most of the feathers. It's a drum studded with long rubber nubs that look like knobby fingers. The drum spins at a rapid rate. You push the bird into the spinning nubs--they grab the feathers and pull them off. But hang on tight to that bird, or it will be sucked into the machine.
The bird then goes to a tub of cold water where a volunteer plucks the remaining feather and gets it ready for butchering.
The turkey is very dead and very naked at this point. We lift it out of the water and lay it on the butchering table where I remove the feet at the knees (the feet will be boiled for stock), then cut off the head. Working a boning knife through the skin I expose the neck and cut it off at the base with a pair of shears. My job is to then reach into the exposed neck cavity and remove the crop, the trachae and the esophagus.
Working at the other end of the bird are Michelle and daughter Sylvia. Michelle carefully carves around the bird's anus to reveal the intestinal tract without spilling any of its contents. The carcass must not be contaminated at this point. She reaches inside to remove all of the organs and viscera. Sylvia harvests the liver, heart, kidneys and gizzards, all to be iced and packed with the birds later.
The organs come out of the turkey carcass glistening and pristine. I cannot help marveling at how perfect in form they are, identical from one bird to the next--a miracle of creation. Michelle says she has no problem spending her day pulling the guts out of turkeys. It's the turkeys' feet she can't stand.
The gutted carcasses are cleaned in two changes of water before being chilled in an ice bath. After a quick lunch of grilled sausages, we turn our attention to the gizzards. Turkeys don't have teeth. They chew their food in an internal organ--the gizzard--where grains and food pellets are ground up by the pepples and stones the turkeys pick up in their foraging. If you've ever wondered what birds are pecking around for at the side of the road, it's little stones to fill their gizzards. We slice the gizzard in half. Inside is the pouch where the stones and food contents are located. It has to be peeled away from the meat--tough and painstaking work, like peeling the inside of a baseball mitt.
When the turkeys are good and cold, we bag them and weigh them. Mike charges $3 a pound. Some customers pick up their turkeys at the farm, the rest Mike delivers individually to clients in the Washington area the following day. Here's ours, all 31 pounds. We'll keep it in a cooler with plenty of ice until Thursday.