Virginia turkey kill gets ready for Thanksgiving the real old-fashioned way

November 26, 2013

Before biting into his mom’s traditional sausage-and-egg casserole, before the smack-talking and smoking and Christmas carols began, Roy David Flanagan III walked behind the barn to the family gallows.

“As glamorous as it is,” Flanagan said, before the sun rose and the turkeys stirred, “this is the system.”

A dozen nooses hanging from creaky wooden beams. A steaming caldron. And a few knives, their blades sharpened to narrow strips of steel after years of use.

Americans are set to consume 46 million turkeys this Thanksgiving, and Virginia, which raises 17 million a year, is one of the biggest suppliers. Getting to those numbers is a feat of mechanization and industrial prowess, involving conveyor belts and motorized shackle lines.

In the run-up to Thursday’s feast, agricultural giant Cargill was killing and packaging 85,000 birds a day at its plant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Farmer Roy Flanagan employs the help of his family and friends every Thanksgiving week to kill, gut and hand pluck 160 turkeys to prep them for sale. (Bonnie Jo Mount and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

But a couple hundred miles to the southeast, it took three generations of Flanagans — and dozens of neighbors and friends who volunteered to help Monday — a full day to corral, kill, hand-pluck and bag 178.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 6. This is a life thing. This is a Pungo thing right here,” said Mere Jo Dozier, who grew up in this rural Tidewater community, a section of Virginia Beach. “This is always, when you were little, what you heard about: turkey killing, going turkey killing.”

Dozier, a 7-Eleven clerk in her early 20s, wore camo overalls and a ponytail as she worked the register and the hacksaw and tried to manage the line of customers waiting on fresh birds.

“I’m just trying to push turkeys out as fast as I can,” she said to the crowd. “Who needs the neck cut off?”

A gizzard fell to the ground, near bunches of collard greens and bags of sweet potatoes, and Dozier sent one of the Flanagan boys in to wash it off. “This is a way of life for people — farming and growing animals and actually breaking down an animal,” she said.

The breakdown began at 6:39 a.m.

The morning freeze was keeping the water in the caldron from boiling, and Flanagan was getting restless. His father, David, began raising turkeys 70 years ago and oversaw the communal turkey kill until a heart attack in 2006 slowed him down. Now Flanagan, 39, was in charge, and he called for the hanging to begin.

The first 10 turkeys were taken from their darkened pen, turned over and hung by their oversize feet from ropes attached to the L-shaped scaffolding.

The inverted birds dangled there quietly, wings outstretched but motionless. It looked like a cartoon freeze-frame, with a plump squadron of buzzards divebombing an unsuspecting foe. But they weren’t going anywhere.

“They’ve never seen anything like this before. They just don’t know,” Flanagan said. “They don’t think about it the way we do.”

As he has since he was a boy, Jordan Kuehn, 26, walked from bird to bird and cut off their heads.

When he was 13, Kuehn asked one of the men at the turkey kill if he could give it a try. “He gave me his knife and rain jacket, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Kuehn, a marine-machinery mechanic at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The headless turkeys flap their wings violently as they bleed out. Then they’re taken down, held under hot water to loosen the feathers and hung back up to be picked clean.

The big industrial slaughterhouses, such as Cargill’s operation in Rockingham County, gas the birds with carbon dioxide to induce what the industry calls a general-anesthesia-like state. The killing of those upside-down birds is an automated process, often using a spinning blade, and a powerful washing machine removes the feathers.

But the long, hands-on process of picking feathers and dressing the birds — a euphemism for gutting them — is at the core of the Flanagan Farm tradition. People take off work to work themselves ragged, and they do it, they said, because they find something meaningful in all the mess.

Through the long hours, they provided one another with a captive audience, and the banter among the guys outside moved from hunting to women to a friendly exchange of macho taunts, including a few jabs at Travis Hart, 24, who had a head-on collision while texting behind the wheel. “Even the surgeon said there’s no reason I should be here,” Hart said.

This was clearly not a meat-is-murder type of crowd. But neither were they blasé about killing and eating animals. If they’re going to eat meat, they said, they shouldn’t shy away from the process.

“You don’t want to lose this kind of history,” said Flanagan’s wife, Jeannie, as she tugged on entrails with both hands. “People need to know where their food comes from. Our kids need to know where it comes from.”

The Flanagans’ 5-year-old daughter, Avonlea, spent Monday learning to pick out tiny pin feathers with a blunt tweezers-like strawberry capper. Watching a gizzard sliced open — to remove the gravelly inner core that aids avian digestion — Avonlea exclaimed, “It looks like a clam.” Then she summarized her day: “Fun. Dirty. Icky. Gooey. Stinky.”

Anne Baker, a retired nurse, still marvels at what she finds in the sour-smelling garage where the women, mostly, do the fine-plucking and innards cleaning.

“Sometimes they look pale, but this is a really nice liver,” Baker said, before lifting out the heart as well. “They’re really pretty cool,” she said.

Her nursing colleagues used to rib her, she said, asking her, “You take a day off to do what?” Her response: “You’re a bunch of ER nurses, and you’re flinching over what?”

She helped with 4-H projects over many years, and when the youngsters groused about getting up early to care for show animals that eventually would be slaughtered, she had another ready reply: “They’re giving up a hell of a lot more than you are.”

Before the turkey kill, Flanagan’s mother, Susan, always feeds some of the crew eggs in the morning. And she makes home-grown sweet potato fluff and a baked broccoli-and-Velveeta dish for the epic thank-you meal at day’s end.

After the family lost 100 turkeys — some of the free-range birds had huddled so tightly they suffocated one another — she asked her son last year if the family should stop.

Roy Flanagan said that although the money might not be worth the trouble, profit’s not the point. “It’s a tradition that I don’t want to see die on my watch,” he said.

Nearly 10 hours after the marathon started, Kuehn cut his last round of hanging turkeys. “These are the ones I’ve been waiting for the whole day — the last ones,” he said, blood spots on his boots and nose and shirt.

A little while later, as he plucked, he said he was ready for dinner. Then he’d go home and wash his hands with Clorox to get rid of the funk.

And at Thanksgiving, he said, he’ll pass on the turkey. “I started doing prime rib roast after this,” he said.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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