Turkey and I go way back. I was born in America but raised in England, where every year my parents would stage a classic Thanksgiving celebration. The feast usually drew more Brits than Americans but the turkey was always there, barely fitting into the oven.
Turkey is native to the Americas but has long been the bird of choice at Christmas time in England, so my mom never had trouble finding a big bird. No doubt what we ate was the broad-breasted white that is ubiquitous on tables across the U.S.
This year's holiday was different. I had recently moved to Minnesota to begin a documentary series on socially responsible -- and adventurous -- eating. In Minnesota, I found that turkey is, apparently, the new pigeon -- thanks to a wildlife repopulation program. I'd seen them on the side of the road, scared them into the woods and heard their signature gobble in the distance.
Given the apparent abundance of birds now inhabiting my home state, I figured it was time to wrangle one on my own. So, with the game conditions intact, I tried my hand at bow hunting. And for the first time, squirrels were the only creatures I saw. Since wild turkey was clearly not in the cards, I decided to buy an heirloom turkey from a local farm.
Mike and Linda Noble run a small organic Animal Farm in southern Minnesota (farmonwheels.net), where they raise a variety of animals, with the turkey as the bourgeoisie. They switched from conventional to organic farming 15 years ago after their son came down with e-coli poisoning and Linda got dioxin poisoning. Illness and the financial crash in the 80s forced the family to change directions dramatically. They haven't looked back.
Mike explained the genetic process by which the broad-breasted white -- the bird that has become synonymous with Thanksgiving -- was developed. Four different birds were bred to eventually yield small white-meat turkeys, which consumers were demanding. As consumer tastes changed, and as turkey processors sought more white meat to meet the growing demand at the deli counter, more and more farmers began to raise increasingly bigger-breasted birds. By 1965, the broad-breasted white was king.
But there were none on Mike's land. Instead, he had several varieties of heritage turkeys as well as a few wild ones.
Linda caught a heritage bird for me and explained the best way to kill it: a sharp knife to the jugular. I took home a beautiful live bronze turkey in a computer box.
My cousin Tim and I welcomed him to his new digs -- our chicken coop, already home to three ducks and five chickens. This new living situation proved itself to be very amiable for all parties as the ducks were afraid of the turkey, the turkey was afraid of the chickens and the chickens were afraid of the ducks; this circle of fear meant no attacks by any birds.
The neighborhood kids came by to meet the turkey, my housemates wanted to name it, and as I became more attached to the big guy, I began dreading the approach of Thanksgiving. I may have even shed a tear as I made a brine.
By my turkey's last day we had formed a bond, even though I had purposely not named him. I fed him everyday, and watched him endure the cold and interact with the other fowl; he seemed proud and strong. That perception was strengthened when I took him to Barton Open School, a nearby elementary school, to show the students. The turkey set a fine example; he never once tried to peck at the children, even after they admitted to being excited at eating his brethren. He treated newly proclaimed vegetarians and the poking omnivores the same, with great dignity. The more the children asked me "Are you gonna eat him?" the more unsure I became. I even considered prolonging our departure from the school as I knew that when we left Barton, it would be time to do the deed.
Dinner would be at my grandma's house, and plenty of family was in town. I encouraged them to watch and help with the slaughter. Those who came to take part were my three cousins, ages 11, 14 and 16; my 88-year-old grandma; her neighbors who are also in their 80s; my 29-year-old brother and my aunt, who is 45. A diverse age range with a diverse set of reactions.
I often eat meat without a thought to the animal that was born, raised and killed. I have butchered whole animals, and even then it seems a bit detached. As I prepared to hang the turkey from a tree in my grandma's backyard, the disconnect between my food and that life disappeared. Eating meat suddenly became less important. I was about to kill a beautiful creature because of a food tradition, because meat is tasty.
The turkey had had a good life, and had been treated well, but what did that matter when I was going to slit its throat? It comes down to being a vegetarian or facing the reality of eating meat: The dominion over other beings and the willingness to put your enjoyment (and, to an extent, your health) above their life. This has all been thought about and pondered over, so I won't go on, but I still grapple with it daily.
My grandma read a prayer. The youngest cousin said, "I don't want to kill it." I cut the turkey's jugular as it was hanging and blood ran quickly from its neck. The branch broke. The turkey flopped around, and then stopped.
We kept things matter-of-fact and went straight into processing. Some enjoyed plucking feathers, talking about turkey poop and feeling the warm innards. Others had opted out completely and stayed inside, making stuffing. A tedious hour later, we had something that looked a lot like a broad-breasted white. I carefully immersed it in the brine I had prepared.
I returned to my grandma's house at about nine the next morning. A few hours later, the turkey that just two days ago had been gobbling around my backyard and in the Barton schoolyard, emerged from the oven a beautiful crispy brown, smelling of thanks. We gave it a good long resting period, enough time to roast the sweet carrots (in brown sugar and butter) and bake the stuffing.
Was it worth it? That was the question of the day. Was it worth taking this beautiful creature's life for the sake of a tradition, for the sake of tryptophan and gravy? I am still working out the answer to that question. We have a family tradition -- you probably have it too -- where we go around the table and say what we are thankful for. This year was a no brainer. I was thankful for the turkey, for this very agreeable bird that did not fight with ducks, chickens or children. It had died nobly, with wings spread open and it had taught my little cousins a valuable lesson about eating meat. A turkey doesn't start at the grocery store, wrapped in plastic, but as a living creature, majestic even, and proud. And to take that animal's life is serious business; you must kill it with care and use every last bit.
Even though the kids happily proclaimed how delicious the turkey was, they did not take the matter lightly. I am sure that they will never forget this Thanksgiving, or that turkey.
For more writing, videos and recipes visit www.theperennialplate.com
Follow Daniel Klein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/perennialplate