Food for Thought
Killing the Turkey
She was white and plump, inquisitive as we approached the coop, trilling out a greeting, or perhaps alarm, as we neared. The chickens raced back and forth along the fence, the two goats bullied their way to the front of the enclosure, but I couldn’t look away from the nameless turkey.
Now, here we were: Lore, Bill, Isaac, me and a doomed turkey. Other animals would be slaughtered today as well, three roosters who had arrived with the spring’s batch of laying hens, but right now, with Thanksgiving fast approaching and on my mind, my attention was riveted on the larger bird. She warbled again, a loud, sudden noise, and cocked her head to look right back at me.
Inside, Bill had showed me the knives we would be using: four blades sharpened to a steely gleam. “This is for the killing,” he said, holding up an ancient antler-handled knife that came to a curved point. “It was my grandfather’s.” Meanwhile, Lore prepared a pot of boiling water and Isaac spread newspapers on the floor. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but by all signs it was going to get messy.
When I asked Bill about the turkey’s name, he shook his head curtly, knitted his brows and gave a short, simple “no.” There was no further explanation offered, but the reasoning was clear: Why would you name an animal destined for the dinner table?
Now the turkey was upside down, struggling to flap its wings as Isaac and Lore held them and the bird’s legs. “Ready?” Bill asked, kneeling down with his grandfather’s knife. Isaac and Lore assented; he reached over and with quick sawing motions, removed the bird’s head. The turkey convulsed in Isaac’s hands and blood drained from its neck. One of the wings flapped free for a moment before Isaac pulled it back.
Bill disposed of the head in a nearby box and Isaac and Lore lowered the body down. Its neck rested on the frame, a gush of blood coloring the ground. Now it was still.
I couldn’t believe how quickly it was over. Lore carried the bird back to the house where a lined trashcan awaited it. After placing the body in the can, she poured boiling water over it.
Again, Lore thanked the Father. Then I held the bird upside down, securing its feet and wings with my hands as Bill knelt nearby. He reached out. The bird shook. “Is it done?” I asked. Again, it had happened so fast, I couldn’t believe that the head was already gone.
“Yes,” Bill answered. “But don’t let go yet.” The bird was still fighting me, even as Bill put its head into a nearby box. Finally it stopped. Once the blood slowed, we removed it to the trashcan and put it into the boiling water.
There was blood on my pants and on my shoes, and I’d just witnessed and participated in something firsthand that I had known about all of my life but never actually been able to visualize. I must have looked a little upset because Lore laughed and said “I don’t think Ty wants to help anymore. How was that?”
“Uh. I don’t know,” I answered. “Graphic? I’m just going to have to … think about this. For a while.”
After the birds had soaked, we brought the carcasses inside and began to pluck them. Feathers came off in clumps from the heat-softened skin, but somehow there were always more. Worse, the air smelled like a mildewing pillow as steam wafted from the wet down. Once the birds were finally bare, Lore removed the feet with a slice to the knee joints.
Finally, the job was done. The bodies of the birds no longer looked like they belonged to the living animal we had brought out to the hill. Instead, the process had rendered them into something else, an object, a product of our labor. The living animal was gone now, replaced by the cleaned, featherless food items I had so often bought from grocery store freezers.
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