|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.
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.
At any rate, the two holes you see above merged into one at some point. It doesn’t really matter, except aesthetically.
|(I can’t help but see this as a Lynchian baby pool)|
When you’re done, you have turkeys that look like they came from the store–except they’re not grossly inflated through the breast.