The turkey didn’t have a name. The goats did—Oreo was the friendly one who bumped up against the fence and leaned into petting, Floyd was standoffish and regarded me suspiciously—but not the turkey, nor the several dozen chickens that shared the coop with them about 50 feet from Bill Pease’s house in the rural village of Barranca, NM. 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?
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.
I had never participated in the killing of an animal before. At least, nothing larger than a cockroach. But ever since I began to raise my own chickens, I’d felt like I needed to at least know what would be involved, what it was like and whether I could do it. The Peases are the parents of a close friend of mine, and they had been raising and slaughtering their own fowl for several decades. When I asked if I could visit them on a culling day, Lore, a thin, gray-haired woman with youthful features, was eager to show me the ropes. So their son Isaac and I made the two hour drive up into northern New Mexico.
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?
Bill Pease sharpens his grandfather’s knife.
At the coop, we began with the turkey. She squawked in alarm as Bill picked her up, but soon he had soothed her with soft words and gentle strokes to her body. She looked around in curiosity as he carried her up a small hill and out of view of the coop. There on the bare ground sat a wooden frame made of two-by-fours. Lore was already there, and once we arrived we gathered near the frame and bowed our heads. “First, we thank the Father,” she said, simply “for this food and nourishment he has given us.”
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.
Now Isaac retrieved the roosters. “Do you want to be a part of it this time?” He asked. “Sure,” I answered. “But I don’t want to kill it. I’m not ready for that.”
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.
The author preparing to clean the rooster
Lore, whose childhood on a Minnesota farm made her a natural instructor, showed Isaac and myself how to make the precise cuts necessary to open the body cavity and clean it out. Interestingly, the mood of the room now changed. Where before we had been working with solemnity, even reverence, we now chatted and laughed. Isaac struggled to remove the turkey’s gizzard and then its intestines. Bill jovially pointed out the rooster’s testicles, cemented to the underside of its cavity. Lore told us about how she had sometimes slaughtered and cleaned 25 chickens in one day at her parents’ farm. The shared and time-consuming labor made the room feel close and cozy, and the light conversation was a comforting counterpoint to the killing we had just participated in. It all felt very, for want of a better word, natural.
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.
That night, I brought home the rooster and my wife cooked it. Its legs were longer than grocery store fryers and its breast was thinner, but the meat tasted better than any chicken I’d ever had. More than that, I couldn’t help but think about how I had seen and held the very same rooster earlier in the day, how it had struggled briefly in my hands before life left it, and how I had plucked its feathers and cleaned out its organs. I felt like I knew this rooster that I was eating, that I was close to it, and the meal itself had an intimacy I had not experienced before.
Of course, the rooster had no say in its death, and if it did it would have chosen to live, spending its days scratching grain from the ground and foisting itself on the hen population. But there was something nonetheless beautiful in this exchange—its life for mine and my family’s. The Peases had provided for this bird, giving it a short, idyllic life in northern New Mexico, far better than it would have received at a corporate poultry ranch, and now, in exchange, it would provide food for me, just as the turkey would no doubt feed the Peases in the days to come. And, just as Lore had articulated in her short prayer before the slaughter, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.