Death to the Turkeys

You may remember that back at the end of June I outlined my intention to visit a local abattoir. While the scheduling of this has not yet panned out, I still intend on following through with this. However, just as Thanksgiving was approaching here in Canada, I had the opportunity to help some local colleagues slaughter four turkeys. As a part of my personal philosophy that we should be not only aware of where our food comes from, but also the process of its transition from the farm to our table, I jumped on board to lend whatever help I could to Cindy and Jesse of Rob Roy Market Garden.

Death to the Turkeys

Cindy and Jesse form Rob Roy Market Garden. Amazing people, incredibly smart, and amazingly nice. Thank you again for allowing me to come and “help” for the day.

Many thoughts went through my head as I was driving over to their property. I spent most of the time thinking about how I had never actually witnessed an intentional end of an animal’s life by the hands of a human. I’ve accidentally hit animals with my car, and I always cringe and curse. Was I really ready to witness a slaughter? The other thought that plagued me was that the animal was still going to be warm as we worked to eviscerate it; how would I react to that? And finally, my thoughts drifted back to the time a few years ago where I had been given a goose that someone had shot while hunting to clean. I had no idea what I was doing, and the smell that came from the cavity of that animal was by far the hardest part of the process. Would these turkeys emit the same pungent odour?

As I pulled into their driveway the clouds were thick and heavy, the temperature cold with a driving wind moving west to east. Homesteader extraordinaire Cindy gave me a quick run-through of the process (including a heavy recommendation of the book Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game), I sharpened a couple of their knives and two of my own, and Jesse made sure we had all the required equipment to start this task. An energy was building, excitement with just the smallest hint of nerves as we collectively worked towards the main event.

The setup and breakdown of events was as follows: the turkeys had been caught earlier in the day (not an easy task as I am told they are big, bite, and can fly) and placed in feed bags so they would not get loose. This was also help them to chill out. The kill was going to take place outside, the bird being inverted and its head fed through a hole at the bottom of a Chapman’s ice cream bucket fixed to the top of a fence pole. The neck will then be cut and after it releases the majority of its blood, the bird will be dipped in water with a bit of soap in it, and held at a poaching temperature for about 45 seconds to loosen its feathers. Next, the bird went onto a plucker and any remaining feathers were removed by hand inside the shop. Then they were eviscerated, rinsed thoroughly and placed in ice water to drop their internal temperature to below 4 degrees Celsius. Later they would be transferred to clean bags and then dropped off at the Chef’s restaurant.

As the three of us headed outside to start the process I think that it is important to note that the mood was light, excited, happy, and not morose or depressing. Do not misinterpret this as somehow macabre, or disrespectful to the animals we were about to kill. It is quite the opposite in fact, we were celebrating the life of these animals, and we were genuinely grateful to the bounty we were going to receive from them.

The weather had turned from threatening to miserable and we watched the rain turn to slush and fall at an angle that was telling of the strength of the wind we felt on our faces. Nevertheless we set to the task. Jesse took the role of executioner, a further sign to the respect these farmers have for the animals in their charge. While it is a part of the whole experience, it would not be fair to the turkeys to allow me to attempt a kill, as it was the first time I had seen it done. The kill should be quick and as painless as possible for two reasons: first, it shows respect and is humane to try to end the life with as little suffering as possible and second, an animal that freaks out right before the kill releases a lot of adrenaline which makes the meat more tough. As mentioned before, the birds are turned upside down and placed in a bucket. This results in the blood rushing to their head which makes them woozy and eventually they start to pass out. At this point a single cut is made and the bird remains in the bucket until the blood has drained.

It was a little strange to watch the turkey die, though it was nowhere near as horrible as the anecdotal stories of cutting a birds head off and letting it run around until it toppled over. After the cut the bird was quite still for about ten seconds, then the nerves started to fire as the brain became starved of oxygen (carried to the brain via blood). It did not flail or struggle, but rather the neck flexed and craned and slowly relaxed into stillness. It was quite clear to me that Jesse knew exactly what he was doing, and was quite good at it.

The dunking in the water was pretty self explanatory though it is interesting to note that the temperature needs to be just right. Too hot and the skin will become too soft and rip on the plucker, not hot enough and the feathers wont loosen enough for the plucker to take them off. If you attempt to pluck them by hand and they are too cool then the skin will again tear, something that is undesirable. After the plucker Cindy and I combed over the carcass and removed any feathers that the plucker had missed. We also had to keep a close eye out for pin feathers which is essentially the base of the feather that got left behind in the bird and needed to be removed by hand.

The next step proved to be incredibly difficult for me. Starting at the neck, you grab the trachea and esophagus and pull them to one side, then make a cut in between them and the neck meat. Next you work your finger around the neck, separating the two pipes. What becomes difficult is that you are dealing with very thin membranes, some of which you want to break through, and others you really want to remain intact. After you have worked your way back to the wishbone, you turn the turkey over and remove the tail gland, two peanut shaped orbs that are full of oils the birds use during preening. After that is off you turn the bird back over and begin the delicate process of cutting through the skin and opening up a cavity in which your hand will be able to separate and remove the organs. If you are not careful, you can be dealing with a lot of mess during this step. First of all, the turkeys can shoot shit out their anus and all over you if you press down in the wrong area. Also if you are not careful you can pierce an organ. Some organs are not terrible to pierce (like the kidney as it doesn’t have anything liquid in it) while others are awful (like the gall bladder which is full of all sorts of nastiness that can taint your meat).

After making your opening, you hook your finger around the turkeys large intestine about an inch away from where it attaches to the anus and pull up on it which pinches it off. After pulling the anus out of the bird enough that it hangs over your garbage bin you can start the process of removing the other organs. You do this by working your hand into the turkey while keeping the back of your hand on the outside of the cavity. This is way harder than it sounds, and what makes it so hard is that it is all by feel (you can’t see what you are doing) and most of what is in there feels the same. Once you get up to the wish bone you should be able to loop your fingers around the two aforementioned pipes and pull straight back on them. This will pull almost all of the organs out at the same time and leave them dangling outside your bird. The next steps are as easy as separating anything holding that cluster of organs attached to your bird and then using your fingers to hollow out the few organs that are left inside. After just rinse, cool down, and bag.

In reflection the whole process was a lot better than I had expected. The smell was not at all noxious, the only smell that lingered in the air was that of lightly poached turkey which was a result of dunking the birds in the soap water. Because the water was warm, reaching inside the bird and working with it while it was still very warm didn’t bother me at all. It just felt like I was working with any piece of meat, preparing it for serving. If done properly it is very clean and odorless. Where you make it harder for yourself is if you break any of the organs open. These release smells and messes which require quick work to tidy them up.

As for the act of killing the animal, I guess it doesn’t bother me because of a few factors. The birds were free range, happy birds eating grass (which we found still in their crops). They had an awesome life, one given to them by the farmers. They were killed in a way that caused them the least amount of stress, and was fast. Finally, the highest honour for an animal in my opinion is for it to be eaten and celebrated. These four turkeys will be the prized centerpiece of our staff Thanksgiving dinner where many families and friends will join around them and take a moment to realize how much they have to be grateful for.

Death to the Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

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