Party with Pluck
A community turkey slaughter brings us nose-to-snood with Thanksgiving dinner.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
On the last morning of their last day on Earth, the turkeys Jamie Collins raised from poults to fat adults gather under the low-hanging branches of a towering Mexicali avocado tree. They coo and warble, hiding from the rain under the leafy canopy. They scratch at the earth with their four long toes, on feet that look disturbingly prehistoric. Their snoods and major caruncles (the proper names for the weird, weird stuff hanging from their faces) dangle and flop in a vaguely porny way.
What they don’t do, though, is the thing one woman desperately urges them to do.
“Run, dummies,” Weekly editor Mary Duan whispers through the wire fence. “Save yourselves.”
But running is not an option. Neither is flapping their wings and spiriting themselves away (as demonstrated in WKRP in Cincinnati, in which a hapless reporter drops live turkeys from a helicopter, crying afterward, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”). Away to a place where knives aren’t being sharpened to cut their throats, and water isn’t being boiled to scald their lifeless skin afterward. If meat is murder, then Duan is about to be a reluctant accomplice to a turkey massacre.
Nearly two dozen people have gathered at the Aromas farm for a planned turkey harvest on Nov. 17, having asked Collins to raise their main Thanksgiving course using all-natural feed and the farmer logic she’s culled while running her organic produce operation, Serendipity Farms.
By participating in the bloody act of turkey slaughter, Duan, along with Weekly reporter Sara Rubin and Assistant Editor Kera Abraham, learns that sometimes you have to look your dinner in the eye while it still has eyes to look into, despite the costs to the psyche – and the wallet.
Turkeys, when raised by hand and fed a healthy diet?
They cost a small fortune.
~ ~ ~
The first batch of 20 poults Collins ordered in May from McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, arrived dead. Or died sometime after their arrival. When Collins went to the Monterey post office in May, just before her birthday dinner at Restaurant 1833, she opened what was supposed to be a box of plucky little heritage birds and found them motionless.
The second batch of 17 sent by McMurray fared better. Collins took the babies home, put them in a metal washtub under warming lights, and watched them – and her costs – grow. Over the next six months, the picky turkeys gobbled up a small fortune in feed, eventually consuming two bags (at $25 each) every three days.
The birds lived on that feed, supplemented by Serendipity Farms produce like tomatoes and greens. “They’re kind of picky,” Collins says. “They like soft lettuces.”
As they grew, the turkeys moved from the metal tub to a coop, then a dog run, and finally the enclosure under the avocado tree. This last spot is close enough to Collins’ bedroom window that she could hear the terrified gobbles when a skunk weaseled its way in and killed the two smallest females. In all, six birds were taken out by non-human predators.
The feed and the predation drove up the final price. Turkeys at Trader Joe’s go for $2 per pound, handily processed and packaged; Collins sold her turkeys – which would weigh in, plucked and gutted, at 31-40 pounds each – at $7 per pound.
So why did three Weekly staffers independently sign up, knowing they’d have to kill the birds themselves? (Or, in Duan’s case, beg her husband and Rubin to do it while she watched; Abraham, meanwhile, walked Collins’ property with her toddler as her own husband did the deed.)
The night before the slaughter, Abraham thinks about the turkeys’ last hours and wishes them a peaceful sleep. Duan wrings her hands and worries, and Rubin sleeps the sleep of the just.
On harvest day, Abraham sits with the birds awhile, inspecting their orbish bodies and brainy-looking pates. The wrinkly skin over their skulls is red, green and blue, with theatrical purple around the eyes. She plays a counting game with her toddler as the turkeys are harvested. Seven become six… five… four.
“Hiiii, gooky,” her toddler (who’s just learned the word “turkey”) says to the remaining birds. Collins’ partner, Avtonom Ordjonikidze, returns to fetch another, hauling it out by its feet. It doesn’t struggle, but its tail feathers spread into an alarmed arc.
A 4-year-old pigtailed girl named Ayla gawks with them. “Do you know they’re going to kill all of them?” she asks. Yeah, Abraham answers. Is that sad?
Ayla chews her lip. “Not if you’re going to eat them,” she finally says. “I like turkey a lot.”
~ ~ ~
Rubin expects some kind of ritual for each kill. But there is no collective moment of silence, just a person hunched over a black bucket with a knife. After each one bleeds out, Ordjonikidze strings up the next.
After some terse instructions from Ordjonikidze – hold the head tightly and don’t cut your hand – it’s just Rubin, the turkey and Duan’s husband, who wraps his arms around its powerful wings.
Rubin approaches with a heavy, blood-smeared knife. The bird is calm for a creature strung up by its feet. Even as Rubin clenches her fist around its neck – even as she takes the blade and makes the first firm slices through tough skin – the turkey doesn’t flinch.
The moment of profound horror Rubin anticipated never comes. Instead, this feels entirely natural: You’re a turkey, and I’m going to kill you and eat you.
“You’ve got a good flow,” Ordjonikidze tells her as the blood starts spurting, warm as bathwater, over her hand. The turkey finally flexes its muscles against Duan’s husband, who embraces it as it writhes.
Rubin keeps her fist tight around the bird’s neck to cut off oxygen to its brain and hasten its death. But the waiting – about two minutes – is long. She feels the gravity of the moment, but not regret; she even grins for a few photos, turkey neck in bloodied hand.
Once the bird is still, Ordjonikidze unties its feet and carries it to a basin of hot water. The scalding makes it easier to pull out the feathers.
The processing station is a couple of pop-up tables with knives, shears and hoses. The turkeys’ defining details disappear quickly: first the polychrome heads and scaly feet, then the feathers and unpalatable organs. It’s startling how quickly the ancient-looking birds become the classic pale carcasses of Thanksgiving.
Abraham’s husband and Rubin – who are splitting one 34-pound bird – take turns plunging their hands into its gut, pulling apart organs connected by thready tissue. Each part is intuitively recognizable and strikingly human: heart, liver, bean-shaped kidneys. And, for the first time, there’s the smell of death as the intestines come out.
Kate Adelle, a friend of Collins’ from Oakland, strikes a powerful profile as she plunges a tattooed arm into a turkey’s abdominal cavity, her own belly nine months pregnant.
She says she’s always wanted to do this. “If you’re going to eat meat, it’s an experience you should have,” she says.
Adelle adds that she’s doing this for her baby – the turkey’s energy in death strengthening a new life. She and her friend discover a pearly cluster of unformed eggs in the turkey’s ovaries.
For Collins, who’s done this for three years now, it gets easier each time. Still, she says, she tends to feel more attached to the bigger animals: “A goat is harder than a turkey, and a turkey is harder than a chicken.”
As Rubin rinses and weighs her bird, she’s struck by how easy it all feels. She silently gives thanks to the turkey, and to Collins for raising it.