Slaughtering Turkeys for Thanksgiving

A noble Royal Palm tom. This photo by Kevin Saff. The rest are ours.

This post is not for everyone, so we’ve concealed most of it behind the jump. This week we helped our friend, Steve, slaughter and dress four turkeys for Thanksgiving. There will be pictures, so those of you who are interested can get some idea of what the process involves.

Steve is an especially conscious carnivore, because he raises and slaughters all the meat he eats, and he does this in a small back yard in Los Angeles. This means he does not eat a whole lot of meat.


He doesn’t have the time or space to put meat on his table every night, or even every week. Beyond those logistics, he also doesn’t have it in him to slaughter frequently, because the act is intense and emotionally draining. Though Steve is now well practiced in killing birds, he has not become callous about the act. He loves his birds–he raises chickens, ducks and turkeys with care, and does not take killing them lightly. Each kill is difficult for him, and he believes that it should remain so, always. He strives to remain open to the complex emotions that accompany the slaughter, instead of shunting them aside. This, he claims, is the hardest part. And that is why he is our teacher.

Erik and I first met Steve when we were researching our upcoming book. It’s a how-to book, and we wanted to include how-to slaughter a chicken instructions, and we wanted to present the most humane technique we could find. Homegrown Neighbor introduced us to Steve, and the day we met, we helped him kill three young roosters. Well, I’m not sure how much help we were, blundering around, green around the gills and frantically taking notes. I suppose we helped with the plucking.

When Steve invited us back for this Thanksgiving slaughter, we accepted. First, it’s just neighborly to help others with heavy tasks. “Many hands make light work” and all that. And we like hanging out with Steve. And we wondered if it would be easier the second time around. (It wasn’t.)

We had a fourth pair of hands, too–our friend, Christine. Christine is a meat eater who eats very little meat, who volunteered to help because she wanted to see and understand the process.

And in this Ominivore’s Dilemna sort of world, I suppose I should also define Erik’s and my stance on meat eating, so you’ll know where we’re coming from. Erik eats meat only when he knows it was well raised. Functionally that means he never eats meat. I’ve been a “fishatarian” since high school, and I eat fish only when I go out to restaurants, or when I go home, because the parentals don’t think they’re feeding me properly unless they serve me some sort of flesh. Erik eats fish when out, too. We never cook meat or fish at home.

However, lately we’ve been wondering about eating our own chickens. This notion will need its own post to explain, but suffice it to say that we returned to Steve’s driveway abattoir in part to evaluate whether or not we could do this at home–and also to continue our training.

***

Okay, so let’s get down to business. This is an overview of a turkey slaughter. I didn’t write this to be a how-to guide, just an orientation to the concepts. It’s slim on details, but big on pictures. We describe the chicken slaughter in more detail in our upcoming book, Making It, which comes out in the spring.

The first step is to collect the turkey, quiet it with gentle words and petting, and hang it by its feet. Birds don’t seem to mind hanging like this–they are remarkably calm at this stage. Ideally, they are just as calm all the way through.

You can see how pretty this turkey is. Steve raised his little flock from eggs. They’re a heritage breed called Royal Palm, a beautiful white bird with flashy black markings.

The next step is to slit the big veins on either side of the bird’s throat, just under the jaw. Steve prefers to use an extra sharp grafting knife–sort of a disposable scalpel. This time he used a brand new razor blade, which works, but isn’t as maneuverable.

There are many ways to kill a bird, but Steve researched them all and decided this quick, almost surgical opening of the veins is the least painful. It’s the kosher method without the rest of the kosher elements. It is not, however, the fastest method. For the human, it would be easier to lop off the bird’s head and walk away.  This method requires that Steve remain with the bird for its final minutes while it bleeds out.

This process doesn’t take long for chickens, but turkeys are bigger and tougher, and have more blood to drain. All the time, Steve sits by them, talking in a soft voice and holding the neck out stretched to facilitate bleeding.

They experience brain death shortly after the cuts, because blood is no longer traveling to the brain. The death of the body takes longer, and there are some reflexive flurries of wing flapping along the way.

Even though you know the flapping is automatic, it is hard to see. Christine, as a first timer, wept while she watched the first turkey die. There is a gravity and a pathos to this moment that you can only deny if you close down all your emotional organs.

I’m very moved by the spreading and flapping of the wings, which I think of as not blind reflex, but as the body’s last protests against death, against the great stillness. Witnessing it reminds me of my place on the wheel of life, and what I feel is mostly awe–awe and sadness for the loss of a beautiful, vibrant bird. The moment hits us all differently. It sends Erik’s mind back to melancholy memories of the deaths of our loved ones.

There is a justice to this. In order to to eat another life, to profit from that death, we have to embrace our own mortality. To me, this makes sense.

Neither Erik nor I have yet wielded the blade. I’m afraid of screwing up the cuts, and making the bird suffer. I’ve never been a fan of dilettante slaughtering. But next time we help Steve, I think I will try.

The next step is to immerse the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. When Steve slaughters, he’s got a big pot heating on a propane burner standing by, heated to 158F.  The bird soaks for just a minute or two.  Here Erik is using a stick to hold the carcass beneath the water.

The smell of wet, dead poultry is…uh…distinct.

Next, plucking begins. The big feathers come out easiest, you just pull them out in the direction of growth. It’s the little pin feathers that will drive you crazy–more on that to come.

The good thing about plucking is that it quickly reduces the corpse to something that looks more like you’d see in the market.

 
Turkey feet are pretty amazing things:

The next step, for ease of cleaning, is to take off those amazing feet. Using a blade, Steve teases the joint apart with a blade. As you can see, they separate cleanly, leaving the classic drumstick behind.


Next comes evisceration. Birds have one hole for both excreting and egg laying–it’s called the vent, or the cloaca. It’s that little button structure you see in the picture below, just above the tail. The first step is to cut a careful circle around it. It will come out like a plug, and the intestines will slither out, attached behind it. Have a garbage can ready.

Next, you can enlarge that hole and reach in to pull out the other organs. In the photo below it looks like Steve and Christine cut a second hole–and I’m not sure why they did that, to tell the truth. I was off getting a breath of fresh air, because this part is the hardest for me.

I’d have to clean a lot more birds to be able to face this stage without gagging. It’s not the appearance or even the texture of the guts in my hands–I’m pretty sturdy about yucky things–it’s the smell. It hits me hard.

Christine, however, was a complete trooper and dove right in, and by the end of the day was gutting like a pro. She even sawed off a turkey head. At least one.  I think everyone who does this will discover both their strengths and their weaknesses, and the form these take might surprise you.

At any rate, the two holes you see above merged into one at some point. It doesn’t really matter, except aesthetically.

You can see above that the organs came out in neat sack. It may not always happen so neatly–you may have to fish around in the cavity to make sure you have everything. See the little green blotch? That’s the bile sack. This has to be removed and discarded carefully–you don’t want to spill bile on the meat.

Here’s one of four big fat livers Steve collected. We tossed them in a bowl and coated them with olive oil to help keep them fresh:

Our last step outdoors was chopping off the head. Of course this doesn’t have to be done last–it could be done at any point in the process.  Unfortunately I have no pics of that.
Finally, the carcasses go to the kitchen sink for detail work. I made that my job, so that I could cravenly avoid the stinky intestines. 
(I can’t help but see this as a Lynchian baby pool)
The first thing I did was wash eac carcass well under cold running water, rinsing out the cavities. Then I plugged the sink and immerse the birds in cold water–both to keep the flesh cool and to help with cleaning. 
After the first plucking, there are a lot of feather barbs left in the skin, some of them small feathers, others broken barbs. These all have to be plucked out of the skin one by one. Some are very resistant to extraction, and have to pried or squeezed out. Some have puss at the base–sort of like turkey zits–and these are particularly disgusting to pull. It’s tedious work, very detail oriented. I kept myself vigilant by imagining one of Steve’s family biting into a barb I’d left behind. But in the end, I found it rewarding. It appeals to my nature to put final order to things, and to clean until the water runs clear. (Out damned spot?)

When you’re done, you have turkeys that look like they came from the store–except they’re not grossly inflated through the breast.

While you could slaughter and eat on the same day, if you’re new to this it might be wise to slaughter the day before. Steve finds he doesn’t much want to have anything to do with poultry after slaughtering them for a day or so. So he brines his birds before cooking. It gives him a chance to recover, and makes the bird taste better, too.
Mr. Homegrown here: Allow me harangue for a moment. My guess is that if most Americans sitting down to Thanksgiving supper had to slaughter and eviscerate their own meat we’d have a lot more vegetarians. It’s a hell of a lot of work, both physical and emotional to do this. Even the meat eaters would be eating meat a lot less often.

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26 Comments

  1. Wow thank you for this. I know it must have been difficult. I am a vegetarian and was a lttle hesitant at first to continue reading the post, but I perservered knowing that I would like to know how someone that loves the birds as much as Steve does actually slaughters the animal.
    I too wish that everyone (including my strictly meat eating family) would either see this post or better still actually participate in the killing of the animals they wish to eat. It’s only fair. Taking the life of another is a big deal.
    Thank you for your honesty and effort with this post. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your book.
    Kim
    http://www.pathtolivingsimply.blogspot.com

  2. Thanks so much for posting this! Truth be told, I’ll be cooking the conventional turkey I have thawing in the fridge right now, but your post was inspiring. Thanks for being so open and honest- you two are doing some great work over there in LA!

  3. Thank you for this post. We are meat eaters but only a few times a month. We are moving next month to our farm where we’ll raise our own meat with humane efforts and only slaughter what we need when we need it. I feel going through the process from chick or poult to dinner will help me and my kids understand where food comes from, what sacrifices are made and if we can’t personally partake in the process instead of handing it off blindly to someone else, then we won’t continue to eat meat.

  4. Great post! My take on it is at http://pinwheelfarm.blogspot.com/2007/10/butchering-roosters.html…pretty much the same story you’ve told so well. I offer mine only because the similarity speaks deeply to the universality of the dynamics of this activity.

    A few comments…

    I sew closefitting “jackets” of denim with a “turtle neck” for the head to poke out and a drawstring that I use to hang with, instead of the feet. Prevents flapping (which can be disturbing, though I think of it as flying off to another realm) very well.

    Removing the “pluck” (innards including heart and lungs) from the tail end is much easier if you remove the crop and trachea from the head end first. I remove the head as part of that process. Head tends to be bloody/messy, so getting rid of it makes a cleaner process.

    The “two holes” if done carefully can provide a loop under which to tuck the ends of the drumsticks after the bird had been stuffed, for roasting, if you follow the old tradition and don’t listen to the newfangled injunction against roasting the stuffing in the bird.

    Thank you for a beautiful post honoring this process and the participants.

    Natalya
    Pinwheel Farm
    Lawrence, KS

  5. Ah, the memories. I did all of that many times as kid but it was always chicken and not turkey.
    I do remember the aroma of wet feathers but nothing about the innards smelling. Did you clean out the “lights”? I am not sure what part or organ they are but these are stuck up inside the ribs along the back bone. If we wanted fried chicken for Sunday dinner we had to clean the birds. We were not personally close to the poultry so we used the hatchet method. My grandmother did the wring their necks until they popped off method. That does give you a long neck.

  6. Thanks for understanding, everyone.

    Natalya: Good tips!!! Thanks.

    Dennis: I believe it’s the lungs that are plastered up against the spine, and those do have to be picked out of a chicken. I should ask Steve about this–it seemed to me that the turkeys’ organs came out a little more cooperatively than the chickens’–wonder if there’s a bit of a difference there? Or maybe its just the size factor–easier to get your hand in and out.

  7. Thank you so much for this. I’m a heavy lurker here, and love your blog, but I have to come right out and say that you wrote this so sensitively and so honorably that I just had to both congratulate and thank you for your efforts. Without being righteous or shaming, you make the case that eating meat is (or should be!) an intense process, not to be taken lightly. I’m somewhere on that path, but consider me nudged along, gently, and gratefully.

  8. Natalya did a good job mentioning the crop & trachea, which I had forgotten. The part of the gutting that was most difficult when I participated in the slaughter of a rooster was removing the lungs. They’re tough to get out because they don’t stay in one piece and they smell the worst to me.

  9. Excellent – thank you. I’d question the conclusion that most people would eat less meat if they had to slaughter; historical truth says otherwise. Any comfortable American farming family a hundred or more years ago raised and slaughtered its own, and ate considerably more meat than a McDonalds devotee. I’m sure familiarity and practiced teamwork make a difference.

  10. Beautiful post, thank you for putting it up.

    I’ll second Erik’s harangue: After butchering a pig this past January, I’m eating almost no meat. (I cleaned and saved the skull as a memento, which I can see as I type this.) The effect of transforming an already dead animal into “meat” was intense, I can’t imagine slaughtering one.

  11. Mati: We’ll have to ask Erik to defend his harangue, but I’d be inclined to agree with you. Animals are an important part of a working farm, and eating those animals keeps farmers working.

    I know if I had to live 100% off the land, I would have to make meat a regular part of my diet–if only for the fats. I know I’m very fortunate to have access to cheap vegetable fats right now, which I use for everything from food to soap to lotion.

    Teamwork is key, I agree. Lots of spare kids to do the plucking wouldn’t hurt, either.

    Also, maybe choice of animal plays into the economics of it. At the turkey slaughter, I was thinking that in terms of ROI, it might make more sense to kill a hog. Poultry is lots of work for a little meat. A hog would undoubtedly would be hard work to slaughter and butcher, but the results would feed a family for a good while.

  12. Thanks for this, guys, on so many levels. I hope to be growing, slaughtering, prepping and eating my own small backyard livestock someday. As an unapologetic carnivore (my sister is an animal-loving vegan), I understand fully that the way that this world works is that creatures die so that others can live, and most die violent and painful, scary deaths. How much better it is to support producers then, that give animals a good life and a humane and grateful death, rather than cut out eating meat altogether. Anyone who thinks that they don’t contribute to the death of animals by eating a plant-based diet are kidding themselves by ignoring the fact that thousands of ground-dwelling animals are killed in the automated harvest.

    The only answer is to grow as much of what you eat as you can for yourself. Obviously, for millions of city dwellers this will be impossible. But those of us that can, should. And it should include meat animals. I expect that it will be emotionally very difficult to do this, and plan to help myself out here in that regard by not naming my animals. I’m glad to know in advance about the smell- I have a very sensitive nose that affects my gag reflex a lot stronger than my eyes do. I think it will be me that does the killing deed, dunking and plucking, and the husband will get to do the eviscerating. I’m grateful to have the labor split up ahead of time, because it just furthers my resolve.

  13. Thank you for this excellent post. I’m at the very beginning stages of our homesteading project having just closed escrow in September. We used to be vegetarian but went back to meat eating gradually over the years. I’ve never killed and eaten anything other than fish and frogs but I am planning on having chickens. I’ve wondered about the time when their laying days are over. I’ve also thought about raccoons, gophers and other garden raiders. If you kill them shouldn’t you eat them? Anyway while I can see my self eating less meat when the fresh stuff starts growing I don’t see myself as becoming vegetarian again so killing a dressing animals is something that I will have to learn soon enough.

  14. Wow. Thanks, you guys. A powerful post, thoughtful and very illuminating. I know plenty of people, myself included, who say they’d do this but few who have.

  15. We have been raising and eating our own chickens and turkeys and we use our backyard, in an urban environment, to do it.

    It’s never easy to kill the fowl, or enjoyable. But it’s satisfying when you’re done to have a freezer full of meat that is so much better, than the allegedly best you can buy.

    Two tips to ease your friend’s process: my husband invented a cone to put the bird into which contains their flapping and keeps the blood directed down into the bucket. He takes a heater vent and attaches it to our redwood tree. We also have a Featherman chicken plucker which plucks 3-4 5 lb. chickens in about 30 seconds; and it can pluck a turkey too in the same amount of time. If we wouldn’t have invested in that machine, we would have quit raising meat birds. I’m sure we’re the slowest pluckers alive.

    See the Featherman in this post and two excellent videos about how it’s done, especially cutting the veins to bleed them…

    http://westvistaurbanfarmschool.blogspot.com/2010/07/cornish-cross-x-chicks-to-drumsticks.html

    In this post, you can see the handmade contraption David made to contain the bird and keep it from flapping all over the place—much less stress on humans with this tool!

    http://westvistaurbanfarmschool.blogspot.com/2009/12/our-urban-farm-harvested-eighteen.html

    Many people say they want chickens for eggs, but they never know what to do with the birds who stop laying. Part of raising animals like chickens is culling the stock.

  16. Thank you for this great post. As my family moves further along the continuum toward raising much more of the food we put on our table, I’ve been inquiring with our community of folks up here in Humboldt who raise and “process” (to use their words) their birds.

    Your illustration and thoughtful story adds greatly to my understanding of how it may be next year as we raise our first turkey with our next new batch of chicks and “process” him in the fall.

    The young couple we purchased our (needless to say locally and humanely raised and slaughtered) Thanksgiving Pekin duck from (www.buckanddaisy.com) continue the debate for me as to whether or not you should name your birds or refrain when you plan to eventually consume them. Each has divergent views on that subject and with how they cope with the “processing”. Ash, who names her birds, occasionally invokes their name during the process to calm bird and help her through as well. It helps her to remember the excellent life they had and the “humane-ness” with which that life ends. While David does best staying away from naming conventions altogether. I say, to each our own.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Obviously from all the comments, there is an entire community of us who are moving in this direction and are grateful for your story.

    Lisa
    http://humboldthen.blogspot.com/

  17. Kristen:
    I must say that as I was plucking, dreams of plucking machines were dancing in my head. Seems to me a plucker would be a very reasonable investment if you ate a lot of fowl, or even better, if you went in on one with some other families who also kept backyard chickens

    Everyone else:
    Thank you so much for all your stories, advice and links. I think, as Lisa says, there seems to be a whole community out there heading in this direction, and this is a fairly recent evolution–at least from my pov.

    A couple of years back we posted something about slaughter –nothing as intense as this–it was just a link to a farmer’s story about his experiences–and we got lots of negative comments. So were honestly worried when we posted this, and so have been really pleased to find so many like-minded people out there, trying to sift through these complex issues.

  18. I wanted to thank you for this post. I’m a vegetarian who has been thinking about someday (when I have a yard) raising poultry of my own and eating them. It’s refreshing to see people taking so much care in producing meat. I also appreciate the details–I think it can be hard to get detailed information about how to do this stuff, rather than just manifestos about why you should. Thanks, and look forward to your new book!

    Emily
    San Diego, CA

  19. Just to offer a bit of perspective, I grew up in the rural San Joaquin Valley – I’m 50 now so that was a while back. We raised a steer and pig every year for slaughter, as well as chickens and pigeons. I recall my grandfather encouraged all of us at a fairly young age to take part, he wanted us to know how much work and emotion was invloved. We also hunted and fished.

    It seems a very natural process and while it is an emotional task, not one I ever questioned. I am a meat eater and while I no longer have the space to raise my own meat, I buy most of mine from local ranchers that tend to have the same husbandry views my grandfather did. I hope at some point to go back to raising and slaughtering my own, and to help my grandchildren understand the process.

    I do appreciate reading your post on this subject, you voiced the encounter very well. Good luck as you move forward with this…

  20. Late in posting this, but I too helped a friend harvest turkeys (8, and also 8 ducks and 8 chickens). It was a rainy cold exhausting day, and I left with my turkey feeling like I would become a vegetarian. 48 hours of brining the bird later, I dressed her (she was a she) and thanked her and roasted her and we had the most meaningful and delicious Thanksgiving feast to date. My kids, also came along and watched and helped pluck and such. They got it in that kid kind of way where they have a clandestine elevated understanding of things.

  21. Excellent post. My husband used to be a meat 3-times-a-day kind of fellow until I insisted that the only meat I would be cooking in the house would be meat we slaughtered ourselves. 5 chickens later, he couldn’t eat meat for months. Killing animals is rough, as it should be. I commend you. :)

  22. All my life we have raised and eaten chicken and other animals. I come from where you have to get your own food and not buy it.

    A basic principle was we never killed or ate our laying hens. We let them die of old age.

    Old ladies…

  23. I agree whole heartedly with the comments above. We also rear our own poultry feeding them on grain and vegetables and watching them roam free foraging for insects etc being as close to nature as possible. We havejist had a clutch hatch 14 little chicks – so the cycle of life continues. The slaughter is the hard part but they enjoyed their stress free lives and we enjoyed our organic hormone free turkeys. We also keep chickens.

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