On a recent visit to fellow pastor, the Reverend Turd Ferguson, I
was treated to an account of his slaughtering of several home-grown
turkeys. His account of this experience was a vivid and memorable
reminder to me of how far we have removed ourselves from the food
chain. Most of us no longer make the connection between the food on
our tables and its origins. For most of us, our meat appears, smartly
wrapped, in the sterile meat counters of our plastic grocery stores.
Our only “hands on” experience with our poultry, beef, or pork is in
warnings to thoroughly wash our hands before and after preparation.
Most of us are vaguely familiar with the horrors that are involved
in the mass production of the meat industry. Assembly lines of
wheezing pigs, workers casually slitting throats, again and again, for
hours on end—chickens living in tiny, dark boxes until slaughter. This
is a nasty business which we best not dwell on when we gather around
the table to carve that Butterball. Reverend Ferguson inspired me to
take a deeper look into our main source of protein from a D.I.Y.
On the surface, slaughtering your own turkey appears to be a
rather simple process:
1) Catch the bird and tie its legs.
2) Behead the bird with an ax.
3) Remove the feathers.
4) Remove the internal organs and feet.
5) Cook and enjoy.
This simple scenario becomes much more complicated and interesting
when the details are examined.
First of all, there are basic differences in approach to killing the
bird. Some favor the idea of a quick beheading, others lean towards
slitting of the throat. Although beheading the turkey results in a
quicker death, the heart stops beating sooner and the bird does not
bleed out as well—if the body is not emptied of blood the meat may
become tainted. If you cut the throat, severing the trachea, carotid
arteries, and jugular vein, the beating heart helps to efficiently empty
the body of blood.
The method you choose, will also determine whether the deed is a
one-man or two-man operation. Either way, it is a messy business.
Since turkeys are not known for an outstanding brain capacity,
severing the head does not immediately kill the body. The turkey’s
body will continue to violently thrash about for up to five minutes.
This can cause bruising to the meat, so it is advisable to have one
person hold the bird in a loving body-hug just before your partner axes
the head. Turkeys can be surprisingly strong, so hang on tight. This is
the traditional method preferred by old-timers.
If you are working alone, the best method is to truss the turkey’s
feet and then suspend it upside down. Although you may notice some
initial struggle, most turkeys will become calm and quiet when
inverted—I speculate that this could be due to the small brain,
suddenly engorged with blood, the turkey is paralyzed and stunned
with its first encounter with the semblance of a thought. At this point
the throat is slit. Be advised to then stand back, the thrashing will
begin and blood will be spewing everywhere.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a messy and potentially dangerous
job. The wise will keep in mind, when choosing their slaughtering
attire, that they will be generously spattered with arterial spray.
Also, due to the strength of a thrashing turkey, gripped by death,
goggles are a prudent safety precaution. A good dinner is not worth
losing an eye over. You might also consider burning a little tobacco
before the deed—according to a Native American tradition the smoke
will show the animal’s spirit which way is up. A Muslim tradition, only
recommended for the stout-hearted, advises one to look the animal in
the eye until its soul departs. We should respect our food.
Once the killing is complete, you will need a large vat of water to
scald the bird to loosen the feathers. The water should be heated to
145 degrees F, and the bird is immersed for 45 seconds. Remove it
and begin pulling feathers. Most can be removed by hand but some of
the larger ones may require a pliers.
After the feathers have been removed you still need to deal with
the filoplumes or hair feathers. This is best done with a propane
torch—just run the flame over the body being careful not to burn or
cook the skin or meat.
The final step is the actual butchering process. Make an incision
across the soft area between the breastbone and the tail. Be very
careful to make a shallow cut so you don’t rip any organs—the result of
this is unpleasant and messy. Now go “hands on” gently work your way
into the slit and remove the entrails and guts. The lungs will be the
toughest part, as they are tightly anchored in the body cavity, and are
very soft and spongy. You can obtain a special “lung scrapping” tool,
but diligent work with your hands will get the job done. Throughout
the process, frequent rinsing of the bird, both inside and out is
advisable. Remove the feet by severing them between the knee joint
with a sharp knife. These make great doggy treats. After the
butchering is complete, place the cleaned bird into an ice water bath.
Perhaps this intimate interaction with the food we eat is not for
everybody, But, I think familiarity with the experience could make us
more thoughtful about our food. It’s a long journey from the egg to
McNuggets—and much of it is kept hidden from us. To appreciate this
is to realize what a gift our food is. In “The Encyclopedia of Country
Living,” Carla Emory sums it up: “I don’t think much of people who say
they like meat but go ‘ick’ at the sight of a bleeding animal. Doing our
own killing, cleanly and humanely, teaches us humility and reminds us of
our interdependence with other species.” It’s another opportunity to
take a further step down the path of personal growth. Let us be