Harvesting a Thanksgiving Turkey

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CAUTION: This blog entry discusses the steps for killing a turkey. Reader discretion is advised.

In the United States, we just celebrated Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on and give thanks for all the good fortune I have: health, family, friends, laughter, a roof over my head, a shirt on my back, food in my belly. Truly, that is more than many people ever have.

From the culinary perspective, the Thanksgiving celebration often centers on a bountiful meal with turkey as a primary focus. This year, I wanted to be more aware of my turkey’s origins. Instead of buying a shiny, plastic package in the grocery store, I worked with my neighbor to raise “Din-Din,” our Thanksgiving turkey.

I already raise chickens, ducks, and guineas, but I did not have facilities for raising turkeys. As such, my neighbor generously offered to raise Din-Din with her turkeys, if I could go to a neighboring city and pick up an order of poults for her. That seemed a more than fair deal. I picked up Din-Din at 8 weeks from a local source and raised him for the first couple of weeks of his life at my house. My neighbor did the rearing from that point.

So, to say I harvested “my” turkey is perhaps technically accurate, but it was more of a surrogate turkey situation. However, I did still want to participate in the harvest, as I plan to raise chicken meat birds in the future as part of my flocks.

Harvest day came. I had helped my neighbor harvest her chickens once, so I had some idea of what to expect. It was, nonetheless, a very somber experience. I had a great appreciation and sense of gratitude for this bird giving its life for our meal. It seemed much more “real” to eat a turkey I harvested than going to the local grocery store to purchase already processed meat that in no way resembled its shape in life.

We started by holding Din-Din and thanking him for having a good life. We then held him upside down to calm him and sang him a song of thanks.

There seems to be debate as to which way is the most humane for killing a turkey. I’ve heard arguments both in favor of and against both chopping off the head and slitting the jugular. My neighbor uses a killing cone to drain the blood. While the bird cannot provide feedback, I currently have the opinion that this method, when done properly, is humane and a method I am willing to employ.

Once in the cone, we made an incision using a sharp knife on the jugular veins on both sides of the neck, just behind the jawbone. We wanted to make sure not to cut too deeply, as this would have severed the windpipe and caused needless suffering. My neighbor continued singing to Din-Din a song of thanks in his last minutes. The blood drained steadily but swiftly. All blood had drained within approximately 3-5 minutes.

We then weighed Din-Din. He came in at close to 16 pounds fully feathered. He was still perhaps a little young.

We scalded the feathers off the body using a scalding tub. You can perform this process in a boiling pot of water. However, my neighbor was processing multiple birds, so the scalding device would save time with the larger numbers.

When we plucked the feathers from the body, we found that new feathers were still growing. This made for darker, gelatinous “bumps” on the bird. We removed the gelatinous mounds when possible and hoped the others would melt in the cooking process. We then cut off the lower parts of the legs and the head. Both of these parts would be used in stock later.

Unlike the feathers which could be roughly pulled, removal of internal organs required more delicacy. First, we very carefully cut around the anal cavity, insuring not to puncture the intestines, as we did not want to have unprocessed waste on the meat. My husband stuck his hand into the cavity and loosened the internal organs from their bindings. After he pulled out the organs, he cut a small sliver of liver off with the gall bladder. Breaking the gall bladder would have released bile and would have made the meat unappetizing. He separated the organs and sliced open the gizzard to remove grit. Intestines and gall bladder went into the compost pile, but every other portion of the bird was used.

You can see the inside organs of the bird being removed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOgX0jTVFi8 .

Once fully cleaned, we put Din-Din in the refrigerator for 3 days to allow the bird to become tender. Interestingly, if you eat a freshly killed bird straight away, it will be tough. It is best to let it sit at least for the day.

My neighbor made us lunch using the freshly harvested turkeys’ blood as the meal, complete with onions, herbs and bacon. It tasted like a very mild form of liver.

On Thanksgiving Day, we roasted Din-Din. He was very tender and moist, if a bit small. (Or is it just that I’m used to everything being jumbo in the store??) We gave thanks again for his sacrifice.