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.

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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.

Chickens in the House!

Mrs. Homestead here:

I’d planned to give you all a progress report on the backyard redesign, which features such wonders as the Germinator ™, the Trough of Garlic ™, the Fan of Pharmacy ™ and the Screens of Discretion (also tm).

But the camera crapped out on me. So, until I figure it out (Which means until Erik gets home and I can shove the darn thing at him and say, “Fix your camera!”),  I’m offering up this picture of a home invasion, poultry style.

Don’t know about you other chicken keepers, but our ladies are obsessed with the house. If they’re loose, they sit on by the back door and watch us through the glass. And if we leave the door open, they try to venture inside–though they don’t seem to much like the texture of kitchen floor. We don’t let them stay, but it’s funny to watch them try to creep in.

I was cracking up when I took this picture. You probably can’t see it, but our Red there, Stewpot, is pecking at a jar of popcorn–and encountering the phenomenon of glass for the first time. She thought she’d hit the mother lode.

There are these moments

You sorta had to be there

There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

Organic Egg Scorecard

Chino Valley hen houses, identified by the Cornucopia Institute as “ethically deficient.”

The Cornucopia Institute has released an “Organic Egg Scorecard” to assist in the ethical minefield that is shopping for a dozen eggs. The scorecard identifies 29 “exemplary” and, not surprisingly given recent news, a whole bunch of “ethically deficient” organic egg producers. The study used a 0 to 2200 point scoring system, rating farmers on hen’s access to outdoor spaces, pasture and the quality of housing among other factors.

And, a memo to Trader Joe’s–take a look at that scorecard–you guys get a big “0.”

Via the Official Poultry Bookstore Blog.

Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.

Hens Busy Dust Bathing

It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

Warning: Rant Ahead

We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

Spike 1998-2010

Our much loved 12 year old Doberman passed tonight. It’s been a horrible day spent going back and forth to the emergency vet, but he went fast, which was a blessing. Right now we’re blindsided. The house feels like it has a crater in the middle of it. He’s been with us since he was a puppy, so we really don’t know how to get along without him anymore.

His name was Spike, unless it was Deiter, which was also his name. He was intelligent, intense, and as fiercely attached to us as we were to him. He was also gorgeous. We never tired of looking at him.

He was very healthy all his life, and only began to slow down in his last year. We attribute his longevity to the vast quantities of avocados and heirloom tomatoes he pilfered from our garden. He might have died of pancreatitis, but we’re not sure, and probably will never know. 12 is quite old for a big Doberman male, so intellectually we know we had a good run with him. But right now all we want is to have our dog back.

Homegrown Evolution will be on hiatus for a couple of days.

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ETA: Our friend Doug has posted a photo tribute to Spike at his website.

Can’t sleep so had come back to eulogize a bit. Just sending this out into the ether. It has to go somewhere.

Spike loved people, more so in the second half of his life when he gave up on his innate, guard dog aloofness. Any visitor to our house was greeted by a 95 lb, pointy eared demon dog, barking deep chested from the porch. I’d have to shout over the barks that this was simply him saying “Pet me! Pet me now!” to the terrified visitors. And sure enough, as soon as they came in he’d stop barking and demand admiration.

He loved little dogs and puppies more than anything, more than people perhaps. He was good with all dogs, never aggressive, but he’d get particularly excited whenever he saw a puppy. With puppies and little dogs he’d lay down on his belly so he could be eye to eye with them, and so they would not be as afraid of him.

He was terrified of cords. Phone cords, computer cables, etc. Wouldn’t cross them. Treated them like snakes. When he wanted to cross over a cord, or needed something on the other side of the cord, he’d bark this particular high pitched bark at it until we came and took it away.  Similarly, he would not nose or paw open doors, so would also bark at any door not open sufficiently wide for him.

His greatest love was perhaps the sofa. His sofa. When I think of him, one of the predominant images is of him sprawled across the sofa on his back, front paws in the air, back legs spread obscenely wide.

He purred. Especially when you rubbed his ears. It sounded like a soft growl. In fact, the first time I heard him do it (the habit started later in life) I thought he was growling at me, and scolded him for it. But we figured it out and made up. 

They call Dobermans “velcro dogs” because they have to be by your side. Where ever I was in the house, he was next to me. He’d wake out of a deep nap to follow me. Even in his last days when it was hard for him to move around, he’d heave himself up and follow. Lately I started trying to stay in the same place as much as possible to save him steps. This velcro nature had a darker side. He was deeply unhappy when Erik and I were away from home. He couldn’t stand to be separated from us. So of course we were always uneasy when we had to leave him. Which is one of many reasons why it is so painful to be separated from him tonight. I think it was hard for him to leave us.

Spike was driven to learn and work. He went to many dog classes in his time, and if we weren’t so lazy, could doubtlessly have been trained to do anything: work calculus problems, drive a cab–anything.  The last thing he learned was a sport called “fun nose work” wherein dogs search for targets of scented oil. He loved sniffing for treats, and got his sniffing title (NW1) at age 11.

He never harassed our chickens, or even looked at them sideways. He seemed to get that they were not food from the very beginning, and we could let them all wander around our yard together. Often I’d see big old leggy Spike standing in the middle of the yard, slightly befuddled, while hens pecked at the ground between his legs.

Sometimes I’d find him sniffing around the beehive, which always made my heart stop, but the bees seemed to understand that he meant no harm. I certainly couldn’t have come that close to them with impunity. Creatures are smart that way.

Spike slept on the floor (well, on his own bed) next to my side of the bed. Every night he needed petting before he’d lay down and go to sleep. If I tried to ignore him and play possum, he’d nudge his nose under my arm. I called this ritual “night time reassurances.” If I was gone, Erik would substitute. It started when he was a puppy, when I’d have to lean out and down from the edge of the bed to stroke his little head. It continued all his life, though when he was an adult, he loomed over me when I was laying in bed, so I had to reach up slightly for the mandatory chin scratching and ear stroking.

He became hard of hearing in his last year or so, and that was difficult for all of us, because prior to that he’d been so word-oriented. I’d never met a dog who listened so intently, or knew so many words. What was extra amazing was that he eavesdropped. He knew the name of our friends and their dogs. If we mentioned any of them in conversation he’d coming wagging up to us, all excited, because he thought if we mentioned them, they must be on their way over.

Our regular, somewhat cruel, language game with him was to start the sentence: “Do you want to go…?”  He knew the correct ending was “…for a walk?” But instead of ending it with “walk”, we’d tease him by ending it with things like “…to the bank?” “….to the Netherlands?” And he’d go from thrilled to consternated when the sentence didn’t end right. Doberman consternation is a sight to see. The brow wrinkles. The pointy ears spin and twitch. You can almost hear him saying, “Whaa??” After teasing him a couple times with false endings, we’d finally say the magic word–walk– and then he’d bound around for joy.

For the last year of his life he was on steroids, and those made him hungry all the time. He became a consummate food thief. What was so stunning about his thievery was the timing of it. He watched and waited for the perfect moment, and then struck with the speed of a shark. And I don’t mean he waited til we left the room. He’d wait until all human attention was well focused elsewhere–a distraction or some such. It’s hard to explain unless you saw it, but his timing was breathtakingly clever. I couldn’t even be mad because it was so brilliant.

Spike had a third name, Dorr’s Braveheart. This is the name on his registry papers. He was the last in a line of a superb family of Dobermans.  Within moments of meeting his parents, they were curled up on the breeder’s couch with me. I knew I had to have one of their babies.

We have one small car, a hatchback. On car trips, Spike had to make due with the narrow back seat. Mostly he insisted on balancing his front paws on the arm rest between the two front seats, while his hind end was on the back seat. Positioned this way, he’d car surf. The goal, I think, was to have his nose line up with ours, because a car ride was like running with the pack. The last time we took a ride with him (other than the rush to the vet today) his balance was not so good, so he leaned against me as we drove. Shoulder to shoulder and cheek to cheek.

While I hope one day to know another dog as special as Spike, I know such gifts don’t come frequently. I’ve met few dogs so sensitive and intelligent and sweet. We were blessed to spend 12 years with him at our side.

Mad Hen

One of our hens will be featured in the new Coco’s Variety ad campaign. What’s Coco’s Variety you ask?

“Coco’s Variety’s primary business is bicycles. Additionally, we sell Japanese figural pencil erasers, used bike parts, old toolboxes, books worth owning, bike pumps, balsa wood gliders, pocket knives, Lodge cast iron frying pans, glass water bottles, Park bicycle tools, wicker bike baskets and Dutch bicycle cargo bags for the carting of fresh produce, the transportation of books of French poetry and the rescuing of kittens.”

If you’re not in Los Angeles, you can get a virtual Coco’s experience on their awesome blog at: http://www.cocosvariety.com/.

Via the magic of the interwebs we offer you an exclusive behind the scenes look at Coco’s proprietor Mr. Jalopy making advertising history:

Changing Egg Habits

photo by Buzz Carter

Got the last word in an Associated Press article on the egg recall: Egg recall has some changing buying, eating habits. Basically, I said small is beautiful–better to have lots of  people with four hens each rather than a few people with hundreds of thousands. Too bad food safety laws winding their way through Washington are being crafted to favor the big guys who caused this recent outbreak. More on that anon.