On the right-hand side of this page, you'll see a picture of a man in a strange plastic suit using a machine to pluck a turkey. That's our farmer friend Mike Klein. I've lost count of how many times I've visited his small truck farm in Brandywine, Maryland, shortly before Thanksgiving to help him round up and butcher his flock of turkeys.
My first year as a volunteer, Mike had around 80 turkeys and he'd ordered the chicks especially early in the season. That gave the birds a few extra weeks to grow. My reward for helping that weekend was a 42-pound bird that just barely fit into our oven and earned me a permanent Thanksgiving black mark where my spouse is concerned.
Butchering turkeys puts you in close contact with the food destined for your table. We chase them down inside their pen, then hang them up and slit their throats so they can bleed out. They get a brief dunk in scalding water, then a turn on the plucking machine before we gut them, chill them down and package them for transport to Mike's customer's.
I wrote up the experience for this fall issue of Edible Chesapeake magazine, now on news stands. Next to my piece is one by editor Renee Catacalos about taste-testing heritage turkey breeds. Unlike Renee, apparently, I like gamey flavors. That 42-pound bird--a broad-breasted bronze--was one of the best I've ever eaten.
People have come up with all kinds of ingenious methods for cooking turkeys and testing for doneness. But here's a curious factoid: no matter what size the bird (unstuffed), they all take 3 1/2 hours to cook. I'm not sure why that is, but that's my experience. Maybe it's because our turkeys are always bigger than 20 pounds. Just another of those kitchen mysteries we'll probably never solve.