I tend to overthink every aspect of my Thanksgiving menu, but there's one element I don't give a second thought: I always buy the turkey dead.
I am completely convinced that this is the right move, only because one year I wasn't.
In 2009, under the spell of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, I got it into my head that I wanted to raise and slaughter my own turkey. A local farm, known for its humane practices and superlative meat, was selling organic turkeys for $6.89 per pound. I needed a 15-pounder and was unprepared to pay $103 for a turkey. Safeway was selling turkeys for $1 per pound, but those had been woebegone, flightless Frankenbirds raised on antibiotics. I was trying to be a better person; I was trying not to make food-shopping decisions based strictly on price. Since I follow the farm section of Craigslist the way other crazy ladies follow QVC, I tracked down a turkey for sale, a $35 live turkey, from a farm a few hours away. One Saturday morning, my 9-year-old son Owen and drove out to pick up our bird.
"People always think a farm is a green place with a tractor running through it," Owen remarked as we surveyed the mangy patch of land abutting some railroad tracks. "It's not always like that. This farm is not the classic."
No, it was not. This farm was strewn with rusted car parts, overturned boxes of trash, empty soda bottles, crushed cans and downed trees, and through this WALL-E wasteland wandered dozens of chickens, cats, dogs, and three bloated broad-breasted white turkeys. The bearded proprietor ambled through the debris and grabbed up a fat, hiccuping bird that he placed in a laundry bin in the back of our car. "You gonna ... ?" he made a throat slashing motion and grinned. I gave him cash. The turkey may well have ingested STP, Mountain Dew, and crystal meth, but I remain confident that she was never polluted by an antibiotic.
We loved her instantly, in part because she was such a tragic figure. If a turkey could get a bad boob job, smoke a pack a day, and drink three martinis with every lunch, she would resemble this wheezing creature. From supporting the weigh of an oversize breast, her scrawny legs were bowed, and she staggered and lurched around the yard. She seemed lonely, so a few days later I tracked down a companion for her -- a handsome Narragansett tom -- and the two wandered about our garden, hiccuping and vocalizing. Come Thanksgiving, I wasn't ready to part with them. I sighed and bought a turkey at Whole Foods.
But a month later, we were all good and tired of the noisy turkeys. One afternoon, my father came over and while I held the birds, with a pair of giant hedge trimmers, he took off their heads. It occurred to me standing there with those two unwieldy birds dead at my feet that I could just put them in the trash. But no, I couldn't. I set up an old propane burner in the driveway, boiled a 10-gallon pot of water and dipped those heavy turkeys, one at a time, grasping them by their scaly feet. Then in the wintry dusk, I crouched in the gravel and plucked them bare; the feathers came off in wet fistfuls.
Gutting those monumental birds took close to an hour, an unpleasant, squishy hour, and left behind an Everest of gore on the kitchen counter. Nothing was less appetizing than the idea of popping those turkeys in the oven, so I put them in black garbage bags, rubber-banded them shut, and stuffed them into the freezer. It felt more like cleaning up a crime scene than putting aside stores for the winter.
Many months later, I hauled those turkeys out of the freezer. I roasted them both and served them for a late spring banquet. They were as dry as any turkey I'd ever eaten, maybe dryer.
You'll sometimes hear the argument that if you eat meat, you should be prepared to kill the animal. Here's Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma": "It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends." No, it isn't too much to ask. I did it. I won't do it again.
Jennifer Reese is the author of "Make The Bread, Buy The Butter," available in stores now.
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