Turkey and I go way back. I can easily say I’ve eaten it a whopping 27 times in my life. Since I could chew, I’ve had the bird once a year on Thanksgiving (sadly, I’m not that into the sandwich form).
Like most American-born, English-bred kids, the holiday was synonymous with an outpouring of friends, family, and good food. As my parents live in England, it ended up being more friends than family, and more Brits than Americans; but the turkey was always there, barely fitting into the oven.
Turkey is native to the Americas but has long been the bird of choice at Christmas time in England, so my mom never had trouble finding a big bird. No doubt what we ate was the Broad Breasted White that is ubiquitous on tables across the US. Over the years, I usually made my way back overseas for the Thanksgiving celebrations, and if not, I’ve found some way to enjoy the recurrent feast at a friend’s home in the states.
This year’s holiday was a little different. I had recently moved from New York to Minnesota where apparently turkey is the new pigeon — I’d seen them on the side of the road, scared them into the woods, and heard their signature gobble in the distance. These birds are the offspring of a trade between Minnesota and Missouri (among other states) back in the ’70s. Walleye and other wild birds were exchanged for repopulating Minnesota’s extinct turkey landscape. Given the apparent abundance of birds now inhabiting my home state, I figured it was high time to wrangle one on my own. So, with the game conditions intact, I tried my hand at bow hunting. And for the first time, squirrels were the only creatures I saw.
Since wild turkey was clearly not in the cards, I decided to buy an heirloom turkey from a local farm. I found solace in the thought that this was not so different from what the pilgrims might have done. Although the bird is native to the Americas, it had originally been taken to Europe, bred and then returned domesticated with the early pilgrims. For my domesticated poultry, I found Mike and Linda Noble of Farm on Wheels. They run their own little organic Animal Farm in Southern Minnesota — an intermingling of species with the Turkey as the bourgeoisie. Fifteen years ago, their son came down with E. coli and Linda got dioxin poisoning (of Agent Orange and Yushchenko fame) from pesticide-intensive farming. Disease partnered with the financial crash in the ’80s forced the family to change directions dramatically, so they switched to completely organic farming. They haven’t gone back.
Mike tried to explain the genetic process by which the Broad Breasted White was created. First, as a result of consumer demand, a turkey was created out of four different birds to make small white meat turkeys. Then the commercial consumer demanded a big-breasted bird (for sandwiches), and by 1965 the Broad Breasted White was king. There were none of the aforementioned birds on Mike’s land — instead he had several different types of heritage turkeys as well as a few wild ones.
Linda caught a turkey for me and explained the best way to kill it: a sharp knife to the jugular. I took home a beautiful bronze turkey in a computer box, but not before trying some delicious egg salad crackers from the Nobles’ hens.
My cousin Tim and I had carried the turkey home in an HP computer box, and welcomed him to his new digs — our chicken coop (already home to three ducks and five chickens). This new living situation proved itself to be very amiable for all parties as the ducks were afraid of the turkey, the turkey was afraid of the chickens, and the chickens were afraid of the ducks; this circle of fear meant no attacks by any birds.
The neighborhood kids came by to meet the turkey, my housemates wanted to name it, and as I became more attached to the big guy, I began dreading the approach of Thanksgiving. I may have even shed a tear as I made a brine.
1 ½ c salt
2 gal water
½ c sugar
spices and herbs (I used a bunch of thyme, 5 cloves garlic, 3 bay leaves, and 1 tbsp each of peppercorns, coriander seed, and fennel seed)
Bring all ingredients to a boil, then chill. If you are in a hurry, bring half the water to a boil with the rest of your ingredients and then chill it with 8.35 lbs of ice (8.5 would be fine too).
Brine is a beautiful thing. Brining and its cousin curing are the preserving methods that have created some of the great delicacies of the world: prosciutto, pastrami, salt cod, bacon… the list goes on. In more recent years, brining has been used with different meats — less for preserving and more for flavor, texture, and moisture. In his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee explains it in science terms as, “the interactions of salt and proteins result in a greater water-holding capacity in the muscle cells, which then absorb water from the brine…The meat’s weight increases by 10 percent or more…In addition, the dissolved protein filaments can’t coagulate into normally dense aggregates, so the cooked meat seems more tender.”
On my turkey’s last day, though no names had been given, we nonetheless had formed a bond. Feeding him everyday, watching him endure the cold and interact with the other fowl, I thought he seemed proud and strong. That perception was strengthened when I took him over to Barton Open School to show the students.
The turkey was a fine example of a bird: He never once tried to peck at a child, even after they admitted to being excited at eating his brethren. He treated the newly converted vegetarians and the poking omnivores the same, with great dignity. The more children who asked me, “Are you gonna eat him?” the more unsure I became. If it hadn’t been for the bitter cold, I would have been happy to prolong our departure from the school as I knew that when we left Barton, it was time to do the deed.
Dinner was at my grandma’ shouse, and plenty of family was in town. I encouraged them to watch and help with the slaughter. Those who came to take part were my three cousins, age 11, 14, and 16; my grandma, age 88; her neighbors who are also in their 80s; my brother, age 29, and my aunt, age 45. A diverse age range with a diverse set of reactions.
I often eat meat without a thought to the animal that was born, raised, and killed. I have experience butchering whole animals, and even then it seems a bit detached. As I hung the turkey from a tree in my grandma’s backyard, the disconnect between my food and that life disappeared. Eating meat suddenly became less important. I was about to kill a beautiful creature because of a food tradition, because meat is tasty. The turkey had had a good life, had been treated well, but what does that matter when you’re going to slit its throat? It’s either be a vegetarian or face the reality of meat eating: the dominion over other beings and the willingness to put your enjoyment (with an element of health) above their life. This has all been thought about and pondered over, so I won’t go on, but I still grapple with it daily.
The turkey poked its head out of the box. My grandma read a prayer. The youngest cousin said “I don’t want to kill it.” I cut the turkey’s jugular as it was hanging from a tree. The blood ran quickly from its neck. The branch broke. The turkey flopped around, and then stopped.
Once there was no room for debate about whether or not to do it, fun could be had again, at least for my cousins. We opted out of blanching the turkey because it was just one bird, and went straight into processing. Some enjoyed plucking feathers, talking about turkey poop, and feeling the warm innards, others remained inside making stuffing. A tedious hour later, we had something that looked a lot like a Broad Breasted White.
I got to my grandma’s house at about nine the next morning, figuring we would eat whenever the bird was ready. I figured my 20-pound turkey could make it for 4 hours at 300 degrees without any trouble. Thyme, pepper, lots of salt, butter around every crevice, into the oven, wait. I pan-roasted some squash that was a big success. I had planned on taking delicata squash and stuffing it with pork and beans and apples, and then baking. I forgot to take into account the turkey’s presence in the oven.
Within a few hours, the turkey that just two days ago was gobbling around my backyard and in the Barton school yard emerges a beautiful and crispy brown, smelling of thanks. We give it a good long resting period, enough time to roast the sweet carrots (in brown sugar and butter) and bake the stuffing. My grandma made the stuffing. She is a saint, but she raised seven children in the ’50s and thus stuffing means a bag of croutons, canned mushrooms, and celery. Believe it or not, the stuffing was pretty good; however, when I came back home and tried one of my housemates’ stuffing made with old sourdough, almonds, dried cherries, and fresh herbs, there was no comparison.
Was it worth it? That was the question of the day. Was it worth taking this beautiful creature’s life for the sake of a tradition, for the sake of tryptophan and gravy? There is a family tradition — you probably have it too — where we go around and the youngest in each family says what they are thankful for. This year was a no-brainer. I was thankful for the turkey. It was a very agreeable bird, not fighting with ducks, chickens, or children. It had died nobly with wings spread open and it had taught my little cousins a valuable lesson about eating meat. Even though they happily proclaimed how delicious the turkey was, they did not take the matter lightly. They will never forget this Thanksgiving, or that turkey.
Daniel Klein is the creator of the video series Perennial Plate, which documents local cooking, eating, hunting, and foraging. You can watch the turkey episode of Perennial Plate that this essay was based upon right here.