Thanksgiving turkey from scratch: Raising dinner, from yard to table

November 18, 2011

As impulse buys go, livestock is up there with tattoos. But that’s how, in spring 2010, my husband and I ended up with four turkey poults, just a week old. The feed store had them up by the register, where there should have been Snickers bars, and weren’t they cute?

Kevin and I weren’t complete poultry neophytes. Our eight chickens were the reason we were in the feed store to begin with, and everyone knows chickens are a gateway livestock. You get a few chicks, build a coop, and about five months later, voila! Eggs! You feel so Old MacDonald. Running on barnyard momentum, we figured we were up to the challenge of turkeys. So our Thanksgiving began in June, with four birds the size of robins.

Since Kevin and I left Manhattan for Cape Cod three years ago, we’ve tried to get as much food as we can firsthand, by hunting and gathering, fishing and gardening. I’ve learned to frame a chicken coop, grow a cucumber, catch a striped bass. I know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, which wild mushrooms won’t kill me. I can can.

Like the chickens, the turkeys started off easy, as do pretty much all livestock. Just about any farm animal this side of a cow can be kept in a box for a couple of weeks while you figure out what to do next. Our box was a crate, scavenged from the dumpster of the equipment rental place near us, wrapped in chicken wire. We installed it under a heat lamp in the garage, so the birds could be protected from predators at night.

Turkeys, we knew, were supposed to be stupid. We watched for signs of it, but they didn’t have any trouble doing the three things that were required of them: eating, drinking and pooping. Our birds were Standard Bronze, a breed closely related to wild turkeys, so we figured there was a chance they hadn’t traded all their IQ points for breast meat. And, sure enough, inside 15 minutes they’d figured out how to jailbreak.

You could argue that escaping from a warm, predator-proof brooder into a cold, predator-rich world won’t score you an 800 on the turkey SATs, but we thought that finding the biggest hole in the chicken wire and squeezing through it was a notable accomplishment for a bird mere days old.

We closed up the holes, but “escape” would be a recurring motif for the five months we were turkey owners.

Livestock housing is all about getting the most protection for the least money. Although it’s easy to build a structure that can contain four turkeys, it’s hard to justify big-budget construction for four meals’ worth of bird. We improvised.

We started with five cattle panels, 16-foot lengths of galvanized fencing. We picked a site and used the trees that bordered it as fenceposts. We cut the panels to span the spaces between the trees, making a corral. Using plywood scrounged from a dumpster and an old pallet as a floor, Kevin built a treehouse where we could lock them in safely at night. The birds could easily slip through the cattle fencing — cows are bigger than turkeys — so we lined the bottom two feet of the panels with chicken wire.

Stalag 17, it wasn’t. We knew it might not hold them, but we’d read that if turkeys grow up inside a fence, they’ll respect it even if they’re theoretically able to fly over.

For all I know, they did respect it, but they flew over it anyway.

We added 10-foot-high netting (a repurposed commercial clam net) around the pen’s sides, and that would have been the end of it if not for Edith. She was the one hen, and she seemed a little cannier than her male counterparts Drumstick (the alpha male), Beta and Gamma. She figured out that, by launching from the treehouse roof, she could fly over the sides. The boys picked it up from her; turkey see, turkey do. So we added a net roof. Still, about once a week we’d wake to find them roosted in their all-time favorite spot, the roof rack of our Saab.

Because they always followed us right back into the pen, I didn’t mind the occasional escape. I figured it exercised their minds. Locked in a pen all day, with nothing to do but peck at the cabbage we hung from a string as a kind of turkey toy, they needed an outlet.

They did spend some time trash-talking, or at least the three males did. Maybe the 3:1 male-to-female ratio (worse than MIT!) made our toms fractious, but they loved to fluff up their feathers and strut around, chest-bumping. Or maybe it was because Kevin, in his spare time, would bait them by going into the pen and picking up Edith. “I’ve got your girl,” he’d taunt.

Testosterone works pretty much the same way in all species.

Although we got used to our turkeys, we weren’t particularly fond of them. Turkeys, unlike chickens, are charmless birds. They have an unpleasant, beady-eyed way of staring at you. They invade your personal space. But charmlessness, in a bird you’re going to kill for food, might not be such a bad thing.

I’ve learned to do a lot since we started our DIY life, but the hardest lesson has been killing. Not so much the actual act — in the case of a turkey, one stroke with a very sharp knife — but becoming a killer. Kevin offered to do it, but I decided I was not entitled to the luxury of squeamishness. If animals were going to die so we could eat, I’d do my share of the dirty work.

Kevin fashioned a cone out of a sheet of galvanized steel. The Cone of Silence, he called it. One by one, we secured each turkey upside-down in the cone, its head sticking out of the bottom. A cut to the neck opened the artery without severing the trachea or esophagus. None showed signs of distress; they bled out calmly.

We said thank you to each of them.

The killing, though, is just the beginning of processing a turkey. When the bird is dead, you have a dead bird, with a head and feet, guts and feathers. It isn’t meat yet.

The first step toward making it meat is plucking, a process facilitated by a quick scalding to loosen the feathers. Even then, plucking is a big job, and Kevin had converted a washing machine, acquired free via Craigslist, into a turkey plucker by stripping it down to a drum and attaching black rubber fingers on the outside. Start it up, hold the bird against it, and the feathers fly.

Ideally, you spin it so that the feathers collect on the ground, but ours didn’t work that way, so we set up a tarp to catch the feathers, then started it.

Electrical work is something we try to avoid, so we’d left all the wiring intact. The drum was still attached to the console, and we had to turn the dial to “Spin” to get it to go.

But go it did. And, even better, it actually removed feathers, quickly and efficiently.

I was the first to see the flames.

“Um . . . honey?” I said.

“Yeah?” Kevin said, adjusting the turkey to do its legs.

“The plucker’s on fire.”

My husband has many fine qualities. He is smart and funny, fearless and true. Safety-consciousness, though, doesn’t top his list of personal assets.

“Naaaah. It’s just a little smoke,” he said. He didn’t even look.

And then the machine shut down. Kevin thought the spin cycle was over, and it was only when he couldn’t restart it that he admitted I might have been right. We finished the plucking by hand.

I took the birds inside and gutted them. (How did we ever learn to do anything before the Internet?) We rinsed them, bagged them and put them in a cooler full of ice water to chill. And then, finally, they were meat. One went to friends, two went to freezer camp, and one — a 15-pounder (21 when it was alive) — was on our Thanksgiving menu.

That was the Sunday before the holiday, which gave me four days to worry that we’d raised the leanest, toughest, stringiest turkey ever to grace a Thanksgiving table. There were so many ways we could have screwed it up. But, after about five hours in a 300-degree oven, Beta was moist, meaty and flavorful. I was thrilled. And relieved.

Being thankful for being at the top of the food chain isn’t quite in the Thanksgiving spirit, but I found myself grateful for just that. For being in a position to give a bird a good life and a humane death, for being able to feed myself and my family in a way that seemed constructive and wholesome. Knowing that you raised an animal yourself, that it lived and died well, flavors it as surely as salt, or sauce, or hunger.

Haspel, a freelance writer, blogs at www.starvingofftheland.com.

More from Food:

Holiday Guide 2011

Thanksgiving by the hearth

The lighter side of Thanksgiving

From Hawaii, a kalua turkey

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