Two turkeys, Hank Williams and getting back to the way things should be
I’ve been feeling a little bit stressed and stung lately—full of panic and sharp pains in my stomach—but I had some relief at the farm over Thanksgiving. My brother and I decided to give ourselves a little gut check and kill our own turkeys. I guess we were looking to reconnect with the way things used to be, for a chance to do what our grandmothers used to do. We headed over to the Chicken Lady’s place, JoAnn’s farm, to pick up two birds. When you walk around her farm, an army of turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese follows you around. It can get a little uncomfortable if you’ve got the fear. She raises heritage birds of all types, trying to strengthen their gene pools and get away from the mass-produced broiler birds that, for fattening purposes, have had all their survival skills bred out of them—to the extent that if you don’t control their feed, they will eat until their hearts cease to function. My brother and I picked a couple of turkeys. As the Chicken Lady put them in feed bags with holes cut out for their heads, she said to them, “This will be the only bad day you two are going to have.”
On the drive back, my brother had one in his lap, and Gary, my sister’s boyfriend, had the other one. They were squawking a lot until we put on some Hank Williams—“I Saw the Light”—at which point they calmed right down and we all just looked out the window. Afraid of getting too attached to the birds, we went to work right away. We hung them upside down under an apple tree so the blood could rush to their heads, which makes them really calm and passive. We then had a shot of cognac to settle our nerves, held the birds’ necks and cut their throats. It was all very peaceful, beautiful and awful at the same time. Because they jerk about afterward, we had to hold them still so that the blood wouldn’t shoot all over the place as it drained out. When it was over, we plucked the birds while they were still warm (the feathers come out easier that way), and we cleaned them out and that was it.
It was quite a process, but it was a good thing for me to do. I needed to do it, because the last time I tried to kill a chicken, I froze up. It was about eight years ago at Michael Stadtländer’s farm. I asked Christoph, his son, to show me how to swing the axe so I could get the motion right and not miss and cut off my hand. As I held the bird down, he did a slow-motion chop and stopped just at the neck. I felt a shiver run through the bird; it went right up my arm, and I backed out and felt like an ass because, as Stadtländer said when he scolded me about it, you should be able to kill what you eat.
In the end, the turkeys tasted better than other ones I’ve had—cleaner and subtler. They tasted wilder, like they had had a good, clean, happy life. Something I need to get back to.