My “Hands-On” Thanksgiving

I had a Thanksgiving experience for the record books this year.

The weekend before the holiday was spent in Steven’s Point, a college town about three hours north of Madison, with farm friend Heidi and her motley crew.  It had been over a month since my last farmified adventure, and I was desperate for the next step in my rural education.

And for some closure.  As I had been hired at Middlebury Hills only for the growing season, I did not get a chance to participate in putting the farm to sleep before winter–to till, turn off the water, plant the garlic, prepare for snowfall, and all of that.  I felt I had been untimely ripped mid-harvest.  Heidi, however, gave me a chance to do something very hands-on indeed, something very much a symbol of the end of the season, not to mention a life-lesson in, well, what it really takes to keep a body living through a long winter in Wisconsin.


Heidi went to school up in Point and spent some time there working on another community sustained, organic farm–one with livestock.  She explained to me in the days before our adventure that Laura and Tony Whitefeather, the owners of Whitefeather Organics, were going above and beyond the call of simple living and sustainability and were determined to live “off the grid” almost entirely, if possible.  In fact, when they started the farm a few years back, they and their two kids lived in a real, live tee-pee for two years, until they had the means to build not just a barn, but a barn that would last 250 years.

Barn–then house.  That was their priority.

The barn seemed to be at about 74% completion when Heidi and I rolled onto their land, and the family had moved into its finished half, like the settlers of yore.  It was an impressive sight and one that, despite our brief interaction, I think I can confidently say symbolizes their mission.  Their website tells the tale of two years of “sourcing timber, milling, scribing, and fitting” before fifteen community members got together to raise “a building for many generations.”  As a Whitefeather describes it,

“It’s a lot more work to build this way, but knowing these barns stand 200-250 years with little work inspired me to go the further step and create something more secure for future generations. The barn goes to show we have a strong and talented community. “

The “strong and talented community” was out in full force this grey and near-freezing Sunday morning, to help with another sort of large-scale event–the year’s turkey harvest.  The farm had a flock of thirty-eight pasture-raised, organic birds pre-sold to the community for the upcoming holiday.  Instead of running down to the Pick ‘N Save for a Jenny-O, these consumers were guaranteed a fresh, never-frozen, humanely raised turkey direct from a family farm.  And it was our job to see that they got it.

The Thought Process

My interest in slaughtering poultry stems, like so many other upstart slow food and frugality junkies in our nation, from the first time I read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you are not acquainted with this book, I recommend you become so, as Pollan is the food prophet of our day, the irrefutable master of explaining our complex edible culture to us without politicizing, numbing us with facts, or trying to evoke change through guilt-laden rhetoric.  Instead, through a series of fascinating true stories that are each a product of dedicated investigative journalism, Pollan devises a simple method for how each person can decide what to eat in a land of questionable marketing practices and almost endless possibility.

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  This is how he puts it.  By “Eat Food” he means real food, of course.  Nothing too processed, nothing made in a lab.  It is a thoughtful call for moderation as well as variety in our diets.

Although I agree entirely with his philosophy and intention, I have to admit it is not so much the idea that sustains me in my desire to, you might say, “get back to the land”.  I wish every person in our country was well-fed with locally grown, organic edibles, but I am no crusader and can, at this moment in my life, only hope to do my little part.  For this reason, what struck me most about The Omnivore’s Dilemma wasn’t so much his conclusions as his method of discovery.  Pollan was not afraid to get his hands dirty while he worked on this project–going farm to farm, learning to hunt, growing and foraging for himself.  After a summer on the farm, I could really respect him for that.

Like Pollan, I am rarely content with seeing things from the outside.  I need to experience something in order to understand it.  So, instead of simply educating myself on the evils of the meat industry and coming to the conclusion that, according to logic and morality, locally raised, humanely treated, free-range, organic meat is the meat for me, I found myself intensely desiring to participate in the process myself.  It was my desire to understand, not just with my intellect but with my whole self, what it really takes for a person to put meat on the table for their family.

Now, the night before the slaughter, Heidi and I went out to a bluegrass concert at the University.  We spent two hours orbiting the mosh pit, bouncing like electrons, and most definitely rocking out.   Then, we went out with some of her friends and played shuffleboard at a local dive until long into the night.  It was exhilarating and exhausting, yes, but I assure you, little alcohol was involved.

Nevertheless, after crashing at a friend’s place, I woke in the wee hours to the distinct sensation that my spleen was expanding, slowly in back of my throat.  I had a fever and could not stop shaking, and I hurled my guts out until sun-up.

A few hours later we were on the road to the farm.  I was still green, still shivering, and the weather wasn’t so much raining as it was a continuous icy mist.  It was absolutely miserable, but I wasn’t giving up.  Like I said, Whitefeather Organics is community sustained, centered around this beautiful, half-finished barn, and run by fascinating people.  This was a rare chance to learn a skill and to mingle in the community I so admire that I just wasn’t passing up.

The Harvest

(This is the part where I describe, in detail, just what it means to slaughter a turkey, so heads up.)

A group of maybe ten people were posted at various stations half in, half out of the barn when we pulled up.  The two of us donned some bright yellow protective jackets, and then we jumped right in.   I was way beyond remembering names or making small-talk, so all I can really do is tell you about the task at hand.

The first thing to do is to catch the turkey.  The young man with this job could probably tell you much more than I about what means to be a carnivore with an obnoxiously large cerebral cortex.  I, however, observed him carrying each white turkey rather like an infant from the pasture to the barn.

He and Tony Whitefeather would put the bird upside-down into a bucket that was fixed to a post in the yard.  The turkey’s head sticks out of a hole in the bottom–a much more reliable way to secure the bird than, say, trying to chop at it with an axe, hoping for the best.  Thusly fixed, one man would carefully slit the arteries in the neck with a long, razor-sharp knife–an action that looked eerily like running a bow across the neck of a violin.  The bird convulsed, yes, and bled profusely into and all around the bucket below, and after about thirty seconds was still.

Next, they would take it out of the bucket and, each holding on to one of the legs, would dunk the bird–now long dead, mind you–into a tub of scalding water.  This causes the feathers to begin to fall out.  When they were sufficiently loosened, they passed it off to the plucking station.  These days, plucking is usually done in a small machine that looks like a large, spinning bucket with many grabby fingers inside of it.  The bird goes inside and tumbles for a minute or two, and comes out almost entirely clean.

That’s when it would come to us–the gut table.  One woman cut off the head, preserving the neck, and then the feet, and finally the elusive scent gland at the tail.  I found that, once the head was gone, the bird was no longer recognizable and no longer struck me as a carcass or “dead thing”.

The man across the table from her would then pinch the bird at the anus and cut the colon free from the body, so that the innards could be freed from the lot.  He then cut a slit across its belly, reached his arm up all the way to the esophagus, and gently worked to pry the entire mass of insides out.  Believe it or not, this is arguably the best job to have during a turkey slaughter (he let me try it twice), as the person with their hand in a bird continuously is the one least-likely to get frostbite.  Did I mention it was cold outside?

Once the innards were out, I handed the bird to an unfortunate girl who had to scrape out the rest of the gelatinous lungs before she passed it on to Lady Whitefeather, who rinsed the bird well and put it, with the others, in a tub of icy water.  Meanwhile, the guts had been passed to me.  First, I trimmed the neck and put it in the “keeping” bucket.  Then, I cut out the gizzard, which looks a little like a fist that, when you slice it open, is full of dirt and grit and other mysterious items that assist the bird in digestion.  I passed it to Heidi, who would open it up, dump out the grit, and likewise place it in the bucket.

Then I cut out the heart (like you do), and then gently passed the pile to Heidi who gently separated the kidneys without rupturing the spleen.  What was left was pushed from the table with a plop into the discard bucket.   Neck, gizzard, heart, and kidneys–these are the “giblets” that make your gravy or stuffing tasty.  I’ll spare you the pictures of these.

The Scene

We worked pretty consistently for about two hours, or maybe twenty birds, as our hands and feet and core temperatures plummeted to intolerable levels.  Finally, I couldn’t take any more.  I told Heidi I was out, and she agreed wholeheartedly and began making the rounds to say goodbye to everyone.  That’s when I began to realize what I had just done.

I spent fifteen minutes waiting, observing the scene, numb and feverish and finally feeling the magnitude of the event sink in.  It reminds me a lot of the time I went to the catacombs in Paris.  I spent an hour or two with friends, walking through tunnels lit dimly with yellow light that were straight outta Pirates of The Caribbean, a la Disney World.  There were heaps and masses and piles of human bones all piled up along the walls for what seemed like miles, and I was thinking–wow, this is wild.  This is solemn.  This is important, powerful.

But I didn’t really feel that way.  Mostly I felt curious, and a little tired, desperate for an espresso and nervous that the ceiling would drip on me again, or that I would have to make small talk with some French-speaking stranger.  It wasn’t until two weeks after the excursion that the realization of what I had done hit me.  I was in a cafe reading a book, when I looked down and saw that I was wearing the same shoes I had worn in the catacombs.  I knew because they were crusted on the bottoms with a sandy grey residue.  And then it hit me.  Bodies–bodies everywhere.  Bones and bones and bones and bones.

Standing in the barn, shaking and freezing and desperate for a shower, I was no longer in the moment, paying attention to only one step of the process at a time as I had been ripping out innards or walking through the catacombs.  Now I was watching the whole scene unfold.  A living thing was carried from the pasture and slaughtered in a matter of minutes.  I knew what that meant now.  And what is more, I was no observer–I had blood on my hands.

And the smell.  The smell is what gets to you.  First, there is the warm, metallic smell of blood, the smell of life, present but not overpowering and mingled with the cold and sawdust in the air.  But on top of that is the smell of shit–the smell of death.  Try as hard as you can, but there is no way to help puncturing the occasional large intestine.  The first time it happens everyone is kind of amused and laughing through their disgust at the turkey crap on the table.  But two hours later it has happened again and again, and despite disinfecting the area, the smell of death is in your mouth, and you feel like you will never, ever be rid of it again.


A week later, I was sitting in Heidi’s mother’s kitchen, chopping apples for a pie.  The turkey was in the oven when I arrived, and a small gathering of farm friends and family were appearing through the sliding glass doors in intervals.  Heidi, her friend JP (who had also been with us in Steven’s Point), and I sat down at some point and, with a laugh despite the obvious significance of our actions, set to mincing those all too familiar “giblets” one by one.

I feel like I should end this questionable foray into the field of investigative journalism with some uplifting, spiritual conclusion, but one that isn’t completely obvious is just not coming to me.   Heidi took the turkey out of the oven, along with some roasted veggies and winter squash.  Her dad carved the bird.  I took the tinfoil off my pan of sweet potato pudding.  We put a sloppy fruit tart in the oven.  Chris came bearing cheesy mashed potatoes and hugs.  Dan and his partner Pam brought a stunning stuffing in a much coveted dutch oven.  We opened a jar of homemade cranberry sauce brought up from the cellar.  We sliced the bread and slathered it with garlic butter.  We sat down in various locations and began to stuff ourselves.

We didn’t talk about the slaughter, but I’m sure it was on some of our minds.  This wasn’t some twisted ritual, after all, where we reveled in our kill.  Naw, it was just another Thanksgiving, a lovely one, and in fact one of four that I was able to celebrate this year.

And so, I did what I had set out to do.  To do a little extra work to make my food choices a little more a part of my lifestyle.  To connect to the earth and the people who think about it, as well as to tradition.  I got my hands dirty this Thanksgiving, in order to learn what it actually takes to get that turkey to the table, and to see whether my conscience would be able to handle eating Thanksgiving dinner post-illumination.

And it could.  I tell you, that bird was delicious.

Thanks to Heidi and to Whitefeather Organics for the opportunity and the stolen pictures, and of course thanks to the thirty-eight birds who gave their lives for our harvest feast!

~ by Rachael on December 8, 2010.

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