Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pre-Thanksgiving Turkeys: Wilderness meets Civilization in a study of sustainable foods

A blog by Melinda and Ashley

“You had to kill turkeys for a class?” my roommate asked me incredulously after I came home at 9:30 in the evening on Saturday, November the 23rd, exhausted yet wired. My bright green raincoat was embellished with blood droplets, and the inside of my nose still smelled like scalded turkey.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “We didn’t have to if we didn’t want to, though.”

“And you wanted to?”

“Yeah. I mean, not really. But I did.”

We arrived at Prairie Heritage Farms around 6:30 on Friday evening. The owners Jacob and Courtney opened their home to twenty Wilderness and Civ’ers, who slept piled up into their guestrooms or outside under the stars. That night they fed us black lentil spaghetti and gave us a brief introduction to their life stories.

Courtney and Jacob had grown up together in Chester, Montana, and though many years passed before they had any involvement with each other, their lives intersected once more as twenties in Missoula. They married and ended up moving out to the country, starting a farm, and raising children. Now they have a three-year-old named Willa, and a one-year-old named Eli.

To distinguish themselves from Hutterite farmers in the market, they are certified organic. They grow predominantly “ancient” or “heritage” grains that have not been genetically modified for any reason, and therefore have remained essentially the same for thousands of years. They grow small plots of them at a time, often planting by hand—something that their more industrial-type farming neighbors are astounded by.

Like their crops, their turkeys are also “heritage” turkeys; which translates to them being comparatively small, and also not as easy to pluck and eviscerate. Though this might mean more difficulty processing, it also means that their turkeys go for over $6 a pound. And this year, with 20 college students and a nice core of highly experienced friends and colleagues, they had more than enough helping hands.

Saturday morning, at roughly 8:30 AM, they walked us through the process of processing. It started off with catching the bird, and then holding it gently but firmly to our chests, ensuring that our arms were wrapped around its wings so that it wouldn’t slap us in the face. Then we tipped the turkeys into these metal cones that their heads snaked down out of the bottom of, leaving their wings restrained and their legs hanging out. One person slit the throat of the turkey at the jugular and another held its thrashing legs. It took at least five minutes for the turkeys to die after this, and a little longer for them to drain of blood.

After it was dead, the turkey was placed into a vat of boiling water, “scalding” it in order to loosen its feathers. It was then put into a plucking machine: a bucket of sorts, where the bottom spun and out of every surface were what looked like plastic fingers. Held onto by its feet, the plucking machine would be turned on, and it would bash around inside for about a minute. This removed most of the feathers—the rest were hand-picked by a group of five or six Wilderness and Civ’ers. At this point, the head and feet were also removed.

At the next station we loosened the crop of the turkey. This involved cutting its throat open, removing the trachea and the esophagus from the rest of the neck matter, and peeling the crop—a sack just below its throat attached to the esophagus, filled with air and indigestible debris—away from breast tissue and layers of fat. This was the most time consuming and technically difficult of all the stations.

Then came the evisceration station. After creating an incision below the breastplate, all of the internal organs were removed, including the now-free crop and the anus. The liver, heart, and neck were saved, bagged, and put into the now-empty chest cavity before the turkey was placed into its own bag and then shrink-wrapped. Now considered ready to cook and then eat, the turkey was weighed a final time and priced.

Despite having more than enough workers, this process was a lengthy one that took all day. We went through eighty of Jacob and Courtney’s turkeys by 4:30 in the afternoon—save bagging, which was a delay in the process because the turkeys had to cool in ice water for a couple hours before they could be bagged. Friends of theirs that had helped us all day also had a few enormous turkeys and a handful of chickens to process. By this point in the afternoon, the emotionally and physically exhausted had filtered out of their positions and into the kitchen to munch on baked goods and more delicious food that Courtney had prepared.

It was a wearying process; having turkeys die slowly by your hands, which were soon stained with curdled blood; repetitively plucking endless amounts of feathers; struggling to loosen the crop, which smelled wretchedly and filled the body with bile if burst; and pulling out the steaming gizzard, intestines, lungs, and other organs with your bare hands. It was dirty work. It was necessary work.

It’s strange to witness an animal become food. As someone who has never hunted or even gutted a fish, it was more than a shock; it makes me question the source of my food, and whether or not it’s humane to eat an animal. Considering these turkeys, which were raised in a healthy, safe, loving environment, where they ate good food and had plenty of space, it really makes you question the circumstances of store-bought turkeys, and other generic meats. What was their life like? Did they die relatively painlessly? What sort of processing did they undergo post-mortem?

This is an invaluable perspective that I would not have gained, or even considered, had I not slit the throat of a turkey and make eye contact with it through its death, and then tore its feathers out, and then struggled to pull out its crop, and then bagged its edible internal organs, and then proceed to remember the smell of scalded turkey and repeat this process over and over in my mind for days after we had finished.

It’s not an easy process, processing turkeys. But it has to be the most hands-on activity that I have ever done for school. And it’s an invaluable skill, to be able to create your own food, and to understand completely what it takes to get from a live, flapping, clucking creature to a Thanksgiving dinner. 

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