Here’s my thought process: I eat meat. I’m interested in food and how it makes its way to my plate. I should kill a turkey with my bare hands.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But as I stood, shivering in the cold on a Colorado Springs farm, knife in hand and a surprisingly cute 18-pound Bourbon Red turkey dangling upside down, inches in front of me, it didn’t seem like as good of an idea.
But first, how I got here: On Thursday, 287 million of us will eat a turkey dinner, and exactly seven of us will have killed it ourselves. (At least that’s my approximation.) I’ve consumed thirty-something sterile, banal, grocery store turkeys over the course of my life, and I’ve never stopped to think how that turkey, with its vivid colors and cloud-like feathers, transforms into that frozen, shrink-wrapped mound of meat.
Of course, the thing is, it doesn’t magically transform. It’s not like the happy-go-lucky, living, breathing turkey wraps itself in a cocoon and emerges a Butterball. It’s killed. And my question, which popped into my mind one early November morning, was could I look my Thanksgiving turkey in his periscopic little eyes and do the killing myself?
Colorado’s turkey biz
Colorado isn’t a huge turkey producer — that honor goes to Minnesota, home to Jennie-O and Cargill, followed by North Carolina, Butterball’s home base — but we have a few small-scale producers who grow free-range birds.
Aaron Rice, owner of Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, is one of them. He raises about 100 turkeys for Thanksgiving each year as part of his community supported agriculture program. He’s considered expanding his turkey numbers and season, but said it’s too difficult to find good slaughter facilities for small operations.
“There’s nowhere to get them killed in the state,” Rice said. “If you want to do it, you’re gonna have to do it yourself.”
Most Colorado slaughter facilities are set up for large farms, which means that the smaller turkey farmers are on their own for that. The kill-it-yourself aspect can make the whole idea of turkey-raising less appealing for farmers and may explain why not a whole lot of them are in the game.
But it wasn’t always this way. A March 1937 paper done in Fort Collins with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and titled “Turkey Production in Colorado” tells of flocks of thousands of birds being raised for the purpose of killing and eating. It states that production of breeding stock “offers an excellent opportunity for future development.” However, it goes on to warn: “Growers should not be misled by tales of great profits to be made on turkeys. The turkey industry is highly competitive, and the day of quick profits is gone.”
While this whole turkey slaying enterprise is new to me, I’m certainly not the first to kill an animal for food. This has been going on for as long as humans have walked the Earth, and it’s more a sign of the times than humanity itself that the majority of us haven’t had to do it ourselves.
My turkey-killing training consisted primarily of mentally preparing myself to disappoint people. If I couldn’t do it, I’d disappoint those who thought this was no big deal, and that every carnivore should be comfortable with doing the dirty work. If I could do it, I’d disappoint my vegetarian friends who were more than a little horrified at the prospect of me becoming a poultry murderess.
For help with the slaughter, I called in Colorado Springs-based Jason Nauert, a professional butcher and the owner of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat. (Yes, that is really a thing.) He was surprised that I was interested in doing the killing myself, and he was very understanding when I backtracked a little and told him that I didn’t think I’d actually be able to go through with it.
“If you can’t do it, don’t feel bad,” Nauert said. “It’s hard for me. I have really bad anxiety the day before because I take no pleasure in taking an animal’s life. Don’t feel like you have to. It’s an extremely emotional thing. But at the end of the day, it’s food.”
Nauert tells me that he will kill a turkey first so I can see exactly what I need to do to minimize pain and suffering for the turkey. He gives me a very brief overview of the process, and that’s about all the preparation I undergo before T-day. That, and scream-sing Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” driving up the dirt road to the farm. Nothing like a little “Take a look at me now” to get you in the killing spirit.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch …
Nauert and I met up at Rocky Mountain Organic Farms in northeast Colorado Springs. Its owner, Blake DeHuff, started the season with a flock of 70 free-range turkeys, but the early frost this year brought out hungry predators like foxes, owls and hawks, and now he’s down to two that he’s keeping.
DeHuff introduced me to the two turkeys Nauert and I would be killing today. They came from a private turkey raiser down in Pueblo, a friend of a friend of Nauert’s.
His turkey is a 12-pound female Royal Palm, and mine is an 18-pound male Bourbon Red. My guy is an American heritage breed that’s been in the United States since the late 1800s. DeHuff likes them because they grow to a decent size and, perhaps most important, have the white skin that we expect from a turkey.
“It provides the consumer with a cleaner looking carcass, kind of what they’re used to,” he said.
We’re also used to Broad Breasted Whites (“the Butterballs”), which were developed for swift growth and breeding. These birds, which DeHuff and Rice both raise, can lead lovely little turkey lives. But, DeHuff says — and the Internet confirms this if you’re brave enough to inquire — the factory farm turkeys don’t always have the best lives and deaths.
For one, they can no longer procreate on their own because their breasts have been bred to become so large that they get in the way. Besides the forced, artificial breeding, they’re raised in tight quarters and slaughtered young, at 14-18 weeks. DeHuff’s birds, on the other hand, enjoy six months of sunshine and organic, whole- grain chow before meeting their makers.
“The rule around here is we don’t name anything we’re gonna eat,” DeHuff said.
I must be getting a little too friendly with my turkey.
The part where you may want to stop reading
Let me be clear: I did not expect I’d be able to kill this animal. Truth be told, I did not think I would be able to do much of anything these days. My world was rocked by a separation from my husband of 12 years, and going it alone for the first time in my adult life has been rough.
Maybe that’s why I chose to do this, this very primal thing — to show myself that I can do what it takes to survive. Maybe I’m capable of more than I think. Maybe I’m a closeted, turkey-killing machine.
If you don’t want to read the nitty-gritty of the slaughter, skip over this. (You’ve been warned.)
The killing isn’t exactly done with bare hands. There’s a knife involved. Nauert is clutching it while DeHuff holds the turkey upside down so the blood rushes to its head. This calms the bird, and Nauert’s Royal Palm is perfectly still. Nauert takes the head in his left hand, and slices its carotid arteries with his right. He holds onto the head for longer than I expected, and the blood pours over his hand.
I watched, carefully studying how he held the bird, where he cut and how the turkey reacted. I don’t have to do this, I reminded myself.
“She’s done,” Nauert said, and DeHuff takes her body over to a makeshift plywood table, the kind that can appear out of nowhere on a farm because you never know when you’re going to need to slaughter an animal and this is just the sort of thing that happens out here, and lays her down.
I wanted to look him in the eyes, to offer him some sort of small gesture of gratitude and respect. His eyes were dark brown with little black pupils, more human than the other turkey’s had been. Nauert held and petted him and my Bourbon Red, who I want to name but do not, calmed down, closing his eyes and basking in the sunlight.
“You definitely gotta treat them right before they go,” Nauert said.
Of course I’m nervous. I’ve never intentionally killed a creature outside of a bug, and this turkey is a whole lot bigger than a bug.
I’m about to kill based on a random thought I had less than two weeks ago. I don’t know what that says about me, but it can’t be good.
“You’ll be fine,” Nauert said. “I’ll be right here if he’s suffering and need to step in.”
I take his head in my left hand and grip the 3½-inch razor blade with my right. I don’t remember much, just how hot and bright the blood was and how I asked, over and over, “Is that OK?”
The bird flapped for awhile. I should have known, based on that whole “like a chicken with its head cut off” saying, but I didn’t put it together that the turkey, too, has nerves that keep it flapping after its death. It’s disconcerting, but considering I just ended its life, I don’t feel I have the right to feel disconcerted about its post mortem movements.
The most surprising aspect of my foray into turkey butchering — besides the plucking, which is the most time-consuming part of the whole endeavor — was how accomplished I felt after. This might sound awfully sadistic, but I felt proud of myself for going through with it, for fully investigating the mystery of how a live turkey metamorphoses into my Thanksgiving dinner turkey, blood and all.
This is how it happens, whether we like it or not. If we’re going to eat meat, an animal has to die, an unpretty fact that I’ve glossed over my entire life. Killing it myself gave me a better appreciation for those animals’ lives before they make it to my plate.
On my drive home, turkey cleaned and ready to cook, I finally felt that this was a good idea.