When Turkey Day is For Real: Stepping Up to Slaughter

My vegetarian friends: you may not care to read this on principle, but if you do, don’t worry–this post contains no gore. I decided to document my son’s participation in his first turkey slaughter (I refuse to call it a “harvest”), but found myself avoiding certain photos for my own sake as much as anyone else’s.

Back story: Wing Son Two has been working on this farm, owned by cousins of The Mate, since July. The Mate & I & Wing Son One–who is very close to his brother–came out here to spend Thanksgiving together, and to see how our son’s faring as a farmer.

Quite well, it seems. He and the cousins made their time together seem like major highjinks: “Look at that paddock! We built that!” “Tractor got stuck there…” “This field takes forEVER to mow…” But on Turkey Day, which fell three days before what most of us know as Turkey Day, the mood was so serious as to be almost somber.

There were seven victims turkeys, which Son Two & cousins had raised from chicks.

I missed photographing their capture and loading...turkey wrestling!

I missed photographing their capture and loading…turkey wrestling!

After stuffing one bird at a time upside-down into a cone (designed for chickens, so they barely fit) Cousin Jesse had the unenviable task of cutting the throat.

...and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

…and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

Next, Son Two dipped each bled-out bird into the scalder–where, again, they just barely fit. (The largest bird was 16.5 pounds after all the butchering.)

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

The most fascinating part of the process, to me, was the plucker, which looked a bit like a washing machine with rubber nubbies, and functioned in much the same way.

Becoming less of a bird by the second...

Becoming less of a bird by the second…

...almost...there...

…almost…there…

Finally, Sons One and Two, along with Two’s best friend who’s been working on the farm with him, cut off the heads and feet, cut a small hole in the back end, and delicately pulled out all the organs in a surprisingly neat little pile. (Two & friend had had experience doing this twice before with chickens, and The Mate and I delighted in hearing them share their expertise so seriously.)

No longer a bird. Meat.

No longer a bird. Meat.

Suddenly,without heads or feet or feathers, these were no longer birds. They were meat. And we were all oddly the better for having participated in, or even watched, the process.

I am–obviously–not a vegetarian. I try to avoid what I call “concentration camp meat”–anything raised in a crowded feedlot or cramped pen. I’m glad these turkeys had happy, relatively free-ranging lives. I did not like to see them die, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it myself. But I do feel, as a meat-eater, that I bear some responsibility to the animals I have killed to bear some witness to the process, to acknowledge it, to feel its reality.

As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:A Year of Food Life, “You can’t run away on harvest day.” Nor, I think, should you.

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This Vermont farm is a calendar pictures come alive–especially in the snow. We had the most picture-perfect White Thanksgiving together. But along with the joy of being with family, I gave thanks to the birds whose lives we had taken, and felt strangely connected to them, even before they became part of me.

Anyone else had experience with raising his/her own meat? Deciding not to? Please share.

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