I didn’t know that a 25-pound turkey could be so strong. But this one seemed to have enough flap to carry us both across the barnyard. Even with his wings held fast in a bear hug, I could scarcely contain his fury. His scaly, four-inch claws tore a foot-long gash in my sweatshirt. My advantage was that I knew where we were going: to the steel funnel that hung dripping from a fence post 75 feet away. It was harvest time, and the Thanksgiving reckoning was at hand.  

Of course, by modern standards none of this carnage was necessary – let alone desirable.

Come November, vast flocks of stationary, indoor turkeys roost supinely in supermarket freezers across the land. They are conveniently stone dead. They have been flash-frozen and shrink-wrapped into culinary submission. They’ve got a red plastic button stuck in their chest that pops-up after the bird’s been properly cooked. It’s a foolproof, even idiot-proof system for the millions of Americans who cook only one turkey per year. Myself included.

That status quo went unquestioned until the Thanksgiving when we decided to make some gravy for the family dinner. It sounded simple enough. According to my mother-in-law — raised in a Blue Ridge Mountain holler where drinking water came from a spring — you just need some good “pan drippins” and flour to make gravy.

I’m not sure what you’d call the grey, fatty substance that oozed from our store-bought bird. Most likely it was the saline solution, whose ingredients include emulsifiers, vegetable oil, sodium phosphate, starch, and “natural flavors.” That’s what factory farms inject into commercial turkeys to make them juicy. Whatever its hazmat provenance, it surely wasn’t pan drippins. At least not in the good-earth, backwoods Virginia sense of the word. Forget the gravy; this crud made the whole entrée suspect. 

“I cannot believe,” I told my brother, “that we are about to eat the turkey that this vile seepage just came from.”

“I cannot believe,” I told my brother, “that we are about to eat the turkey that this vile seepage just came from.”

We did eat it, but I vowed that next year would be different. So, I convinced my brother, who already raises chickens for meat and eggs, that he should add a small flock of turkeys to his menagerie.

We bought 13 chicks, and all but one survived until fall. They were a hearty, traditional variety with bronze-black feathers that made them resemble wild turkeys. When the birds began to mature my brother trimmed their wing feathers so they couldn’t escape the pen.

Then one September morning, it seemed as if they’d all flown the coop. When my sister-in-law Diane looked out the back door, she saw the whole flock about 25 yards away in the donkey pasture. She told my brother who rushed outside and grabbed his “turkey stick.” The stick is an avian training aid of his own making that’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. He taps it behind his little flock – gobble-gobbling all the while — and herds them into their coop at night. Only this time, his usually obedient charges ran off into the stubble of a corn field.

“Jeffff, Jefffff!” called Diane, no doubt the latest in a long line of wives who have bellowed at errant husbands from the back door of their 1850s farm house. “What are you doing out there? The turkeys are all back in their pen now.”

They had, in fact, never escaped. The other flock, nearly identical in appearance, was made up of wild turkeys. They’d caught the scent of their incarcerated brethren and stopped by to commiserate. Not unlike Sunday visiting hours at the St. Joseph County Jail in Centreville.

A few weeks later, the weather turned cool and it was time for the penned birds to meet their destiny. They’d lived outside since June in a grassy paddock. They’d fattened on milled grain, earthworms, grasshoppers and excess garden cucumbers. They’d felt the cool breeze of morning, taken dust baths on sunny afternoons and roosted at night in a humble, but raccoon-proof coop made of particle board.

We (actually my big brother did all the work) had kept our end of the bargain. Now it was time for them to keep theirs. We formed a four-person butchering party for the occasion. Besides me, it included my brother, Diane, and my friend Ladislav – he being an artist, naturalist, fishing buddy and unshaven Midwestern incarnation of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. (And after several shots of Lad’s homemade sassafras liqueur, a trip to Middle Earth feels entirely possible.)

Lad and I watched closely as my brother dispatched the first few birds. Then it was my turn to grab one. While the big tom wasn’t hard to catch, the short trip from pen to makeshift guillotine proved highly eventful. For both of us.

“Get em’ over here quick,” Jeff commanded, as big brothers are wont to do. “Don’t let him fight so much.” 

Then he told me, for the 86th time, about the day he came home to find that a red-tailed hawk had preyed on two hens in his chicken yard. Ever the pragmatist, he butchered one of the fresh-killed birds and made soup out of it. It was famously inedible. The flesh was tough, tasteless and rubbery as a tractor tire. “It’s all the adrenalin that does it,” Jeff said. “Once they get scared, their muscles are pumped full of it.”

I hastily folded the turkey’s wings, stuck it head first into the funnel, then pulled its head and neck out of the bottom. Within three seconds, the butcher knife had done its job with grim efficiency. The carcass flopped in the funnel for 20 seconds or so – a reflexive attempt at escape — and then went forever still.

“I’ve probably killed 1,000 chickens, but I never get used to this part,” said Jeff, as a crimson stream spattered into the bucket. “I do it quick because I never want to see them suffer.”

Ah, the carnivore’s dilemma, never more starkly revealed than in a barnyard abattoir. Yes, it’s fitting that we feel remorse for any creature that dies by our hand, lest we grow ungrateful for its sacrifice. It’s also fitting that many humans forgo animal bloodshed altogether and get their protein from peanuts and chick peas. It’s also instructive to consider how the animal kingdom handles such matters. That neighborhood flock of wild turkeys? There will be no swift blade at the end for them. It’s either the slow agony of sickness and starvation, or an ambush by coyotes that aren’t morally opposed to eating them one drumstick at a time.

By contrast, my brother had a bond with the turkeys that no one else could have. He’d built their coop, mended their pasture fence, lugged home 50 lb. pound feed bags from the store. He let them out each morning and turkey-sticked them to bed at night. Granted, he was nice to them at first, only to become their executioner later, but

With meatier work at hand, the ethical woolgathering would have to wait.

I dipped the now limp turkey into a cauldron of boiling water, plucked its feathers and gutted it. On a chilly afternoon, it felt perfectly natural and pleasurable to warm one’s stiff fingers inside a steaming body cavity. I couldn’t help but remember “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. In this much-anthologized short story, a Yukon prospector falls through the ice of a wilderness creek. It’s 75 degrees below zero and his very life depends on whether he can build a fire. Then, after a clump of snow from a spruce branch snuffs out his last match, he conceives a final, desperate plan. He aims to kill his wolf-husky dog, cut it open, use its body cavity as a hand-warmer and thus save his mortally frozen fingers. It’s telling that the dog sensed something dangerous in the man’s voice and had the good sense to run away.

Such are the rarified musings that a turkey slaughter turned literary salon make possible.

Afterwards, Diane took in some fresh turkey giblets and sautéed them with onions and minced garlic. The knowledge that they’d functioned as pulsing organs of a lately plucked and headless turkey didn’t lessen their flavor a bit. It also helped that she fried them up with a mess of gaudy-orange mushrooms that Lad had picked from an oak stump along Moorepark Road.  

And come Thanksgiving? Our cooked turkey was less tender than I prefer, but tastier than I expected. You might say it was “turkier” – its flavor distinct, yet somehow familiar; just as honey from our backyard beehives has its own unique taste of home. And for similar reasons. The turkey had incarnated the same Michigan flyover country terroir: the silvery morning dews and sunflower-gold afternoons; the black raspberries, purple poke berries, and yes, the same surfeit of GMO-tainted corn pollen.

Apart from the meat, I am told (not being a gravy man myself) that the gravy was five-star. Instead of a factory-farm oil slick, the pan drippins’ rendered a golden river that ran down mashed-potato mountains into a cranberry sea. Taken together, it was everything I could want from a turkey-sticked family operation 100 yards down the road. The best food chains – like the best brothers – should be close-linked, as nature intends them to be.  

Local Culture
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