The turkeys must die.
"We're gonna have 'em," the part-time poultry farmer is promising a rep for Whole Foods. "I'm killing this afternoon and all day tomorrow."
Cell phone stuck to his ear, jeans tucked into knee-high rubber boots, Chris Bohrer continues: "We could do 112 birds on a pallet . . . How many you need?"
At his feet, in a small, sunny pen on this nearly 200-year-old Howard County farm, waddle a few hundred free-range turkeys. They burble hiccupy erp, erps. They are white, bald as vultures and have fleshy red wattles that look like double chins. One of them is carrying in its beak, protectively and guardedly, an inside-out blue plastic glove. They are part of Maple Lawn Farms' harvest of 20,000 turkeys.
They are all on death row.
"We're gonna have 'em," Bohrer assures the rep on the phone. "We were slaughtering big birds the last two days."
In Washington, only one turkey gets a bye. The rest wind up in shrink wrap.
His cell doesn't stop. Whole Foods. Balducci's. The car dealerships giving turkeys as employee holiday bonuses. Another turkey farmer who's run out of birds and needs some extras. They all want a moment with Bohrer. One whole week before Thanksgiving, he gets 52 calls in a day, and those are just the beginning.
"It's like Santa's workshop the week before Christmas," he says, except instead of elves making toys, they're turning turkeys into Thanksgiving dinners.
"What time you wanna stop?" A guy in yellow rubber overalls and a hooded Key West sweat shirt walks out of the slaughterhouse.
"Three-thirty?" Bohrer asks.
"People are fading," the guy warns.
"I wanna finish this," Bohrer answers.
The guy is BJ Radhe, the 23-year-old plant supervisor for the killing season, helping Bohrer oversee the few dozen migrant workers inside. Both Bohrer, the plant manager, and Radhe have worked this Fulton farm for the last 18 years -- Radhe since he was 5 and pretending to help; Bohrer since he graduated from high school. They are both fifth-generation members of the Iager family, which for 60 years has been transforming this flightless domesticated bird into a ritualized holiday query: "You want white meat or dark?" Bohrer is owner Gene Iager's son-in-law and works full time as a Montgomery County traffic cop. Radhe is Iager's nephew and works as a clerk at a Columbia law firm.
Killing turkeys is what they do on their vacation.
The door to the slaughterhouse slides open, and a man stands behind the birds and waggles a broom. There's one last batch to do this afternoon before ramping up in the morning on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when Bohrer hopes to kill even more than the daily average of 1,500. With the holiday hurtling toward them, he keeps in mind the lines of years past, when cars stretched past the brick rambler and down to the milking parlor, when they hung a left along the cow pastures and past the pond surrounded by geese. Some years, if the weather is nice, cars will even line Route 216.
Turkey is, after all, the golden, gleaming centerpiece of the season. A truly Norman Rockwellian dining table, complete with father-son carving lessons and kitchen rituals involving lumpless gravy, requires the fully dressed presence of one of the world's dumbest birds.
Look up "turkey" in a thesaurus, and instead of synonyms like "gobbler," "poultry," "fowl," the reference book lists: "fool, idiot, imbecile, jackass, mooncalf, moron, nincompoop, nitwit, simpleton, softhead. . . . Slang cretin, ding-dong, nerd, schmo. See ability/inability."
Turkeys are not a bird with great PR. The one "fact" -- an urban legend that's actually false -- that most people believe about turkeys is this: They will stare up at falling rain until they drown.
Alive, they are denigrated. Dead, they are celebrated: Mmmmmm, leftovers. That's the meaning of a turkey's life. It's the point they've been pushed toward, from the moment they were hatched and brought, as day-old poults from May through the summer, to the Maple Lawn Farms brooder barn. It's why these 10-to-45-pounders are now shuffling from the sunny outdoor pen into a long, white, artificially lit building.
The door closes behind them. They wait in line, slowly moving toward the covered conveyor belt. It carries them to a platform, where two young men in plastic aprons grab the turkeys by their legs and hang the birds by their feet from another conveyance mounted to the ceiling. Some of the turkeys struggle, flapping their wings. Others stay pretty quiet.
Now upside down, each Thanksgiving dinner slides in front of another guy in a yellow plastic apron Jackson-Pollocked with vivid red blood.
He holds the electric knife. His job is to slice each bird's throat. Bohrer says the knife stuns them. It appears -- and this is probably wrong, but it's comforting -- to administer immediate rigor mortis.
"I understand, I guess, people that're into animal rights," Bohrer says at one point, anticipating squeamishness about the killing of turkeys, even though someone's gotta do it, and the plant is regularly inspected by gourmet groceries ensuring that their methods are humane. "I don't understand the 'I can't believe you're doing that to a turkey,' and then they carve into one or sit down to a turkey dinner."
The birds disappear behind a black curtain, circling through a tunnel and emerging, on the other side, to a 180-degree steam bath that essentially opens their pores and scalds off the feathers. The feet are removed, giving us hearty drumsticks attached to no discomfiting reminders of the turkey's former, somewhat ambulatory life. (Everything from the birds gets used: The feather-gook will be spread on the farm's corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and hay fields; Bohrer will sell packs of necks, and packs of dark meat only. There's a market for the feet. One guy bought 40 pounds of them one year.)
At this point, the assembly line moves fast. The gizzard, heart and liver come out and get bagged separately. The rest of the innards are vacuumed out. A woman with a paring knife plucks the final few feathers remaining after the steam bath.
Now looking like the naked and dimple-skinned bundles familiar to every American who's trussed, stuffed and shoved one in the oven on the fourth Thursday in November, the "fresh-killed" birds are weighed and put into huge cooling vats, where they lie slathered in layers of ice and cold water, waiting for their shrink-wrap labels.
And for their final act on Thanksgiving, they will appear center stage, plump, glazed and glistening, oozing cornbread stuffing. Dad will make the first cut, the flavor-packed steam rising off his carving knife, the juices running clear and hot, the drumstick cracking off.
It's enough to make your mouth water. Bohrer, who spends the two weeks before Thanksgiving adhering to the motto "As long as I can keep the blood and guts off, I'm good," still eats the great bird -- twice. Once at his mother-in-law's, and again at his mom's.
But Radhe can't do it. "For Thanksgiving," he says, just before heading back into the slaughterhouse, "I go to this place in Annapolis called Buddy's Crabs and Ribs."