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Not A Vegan Thanksgiving

November 28, 2014

We’ve done it. We finally have earned the right to call ourselves “homesteaders.” Aside from the laying chickens who provide us with eggs, the vegetables and herbs we manage to harvest from our weedy garden, we also have passed the ultimate test: we raised, killed, cleaned, dressed, and cooked our first Thanksgiving turkey. I say “we” in the same way The Little Red Hen’s friends said it, in the sense of “We will help you eat the bread.” Other than that, I didn’t have much to do with it. Well, some. Just not the hardest part.

It all started last May when Mike said, “I want to grow turkeys.” I wish I could report that I replied, “Of course, darling. Whatever you want to do, you know I will support you 100%,” but instead I said, “Huh-uh! No way. I’m not doing it!” That gradually gave way to, “I ain’t havin’ nuthin’ to do with them turkeys.” Eventually, I drove to the farm which raises heritage Narragansett turkeys and bought twenty newborn poults, and paid for them out of my checking account, the one Mike isn’t supposed to know about and I can use for my own whimsy. But somehow, Mike was busy and these turkeys had to be picked up right away and, well, you know how these men manage to get you to do things you don’t want to do. . . .

I remember this well because it was two days after my grandson, Wells, was born. He and the baby turkeys were both hatched on the same day, and both were as adorable as you can imagine. The turkeys may even have had a little bit of an edge because they were smaller and covered with down, and they were able to follow me around endearingly. Wells stayed latched onto his mommy so I couldn’t see his face for the first week or two.

You can see where this is headed. Them turkeys I wasn’t havin’ nuthin to do with ended up being cuddled and fed by me (and the feed was paid for out of my “whimsy” account). But I didn’t get attached. Not really. I mean, I did get attached, but only to those little baby turkeys. As they grew, I discovered they are wicked creatures: not kind to each other, and they are awfully dumb. By the time they outgrew the baby swimming pool underneath the pool table in the garage, two of them had been squashed by their brethren, and one had drowned in the water dish, so I decided it was time to distance myself a little. After all, I knew I was going to be eating one of them in a few months, and you have to keep things in perspective.

By this time, our son-in-law Nick, had taken over most of the poultry duties so I could make good on my promise not to have nuthin’ to do with them turkeys. Nick and our daughter Mary Elizabeth and their baby Wells live with us, thank God. He not only is a marvelous field-hand, but he also takes care of all our culinary needs (yes, I am to be envied. My son-in-law does ALL the grocery shopping and cooking around here).

Anyway, during the swimming pool stage of the baby turkeys’ lives, while the poults were still cute and worthy of my attention, Mike and Nick spent countless hours building a charming little house for the next stage. Unfortunately, no matter how much chicken-wire they wrapped around that thing, coyotes managed to snatch a few turkeys for a midnight snack, so within weeks, we were down to 10, and half my investment was reduced to feathers and a few guts lying around in the yard. The guys then built another shelter of sorts, a hideous contrivance of wire, PVC pipe and a big blue tarp that was so ugly that even the turkeys, which have no aesthetic sensibilities at all, hated it. We had to go out every evening at dusk and chase them around with a net to herd them in to safety against the coyotes. They would roost inside, but during the day, they were free-range, so it got hard to chase them down and haul them back into their enclosure. We finally decided it was time to clip some wings.

That was fun. Feel free to imagine me saying that with all the sarcasm of Joan Rivers saying Miley Cyrus dresses like a classy lady. We chased turkeys around for a very long time, and I had the pleasure (again, sarcasm) of holding them down while Mike clipped off feathers with dull scissors. Ladies and gentlemen, turkeys are big and strong. And they have sharp toenails. And when they get upset, they throw up on you. Deliberately. And they aim.

Clipping the feathers keeps them from straying too far for a while, until the feathers grow back, which happens in a couple of weeks, at which time you have to repeat the whole process. At this point, it is wise to make sure your spouse is the one holding down the vomiting monsters while you do the feather-hacking.
When I call them monsters, I mean it. By the time they are grown, which is at about 4 months, when human baby boys are cooing and stealing your heart, turkeys have become strutting, hissing, ugly, dumb, dinosaur-resembling critters that do not even look like the same species as those little balls of fluff that once sat in your hand and cheeped at you.

By this time, good luck getting them into the ugly house-contraption thingy to roost. They’ll barely go in there to eat, but stay outside 24/7, roosting in trees, no matter how wet and sloppy it is outside. And believe me, a turkey yard can get pretty sloppy during wet weather. By then, you can forget wrestling them to the ground and clipping their wings. When they’re fanning and strutting, which is every time you approach the yard, they are bigger than you are.

By the time they are five months old, the males begin trying to kill each other by ripping off combs and wattles and also trying to swallow each other head first. The hens aren’t so bad. They stay pretty sweet and small, which is unfortunate for them, because they have little defense against the attentions of the males, which, believe me, is about as welcome to the hens as it would be to you. By the time they are 6 months old, you realize you’d better start culling out some of the males or nobody’s going to keep their combs or wattles, and somebody is likely to get swallowed. The hens will have suffered a nervous breakdown.

So, Thanksgiving came just in time. Wells and the turkeys celebrated their 6-month birthday on November 19, which meant that the turkeys were ready to be “harvested.” I think it’s interesting that chopping an animal’s head off and ripping its guts out is called “harvesting,” as if it’s as easy and as polite as strolling out to the tomato patch and pulling a few off the vine. This is a time of determination, of resolve, of examining your commitment, the time the rubber meets the road and you have to decide if you are going to be real farmers who grow their own food or just pussy-footed ones who claim to farm but run out to buy the neat, clean, plucked, bled, gutted Butterball down at the Harris Teeter the day before Thanksgiving.

One of us made the grade. I suddenly remembered that I ain’t havin’ nuthin’ to do with them turkeys, and Mike had to call up our son George to help him do the deed. Nick had chickened out long before I did. He can’t even kill a fish without drinking a bottle of Seagram’s 7 afterward and then lying around moaning about how traumatized he is. The last time he tried to kill something—a crab, I think—he went vegan on us for months, which was hard. Suffering through Nick’s vegan phase was so bad we vowed to keep him away from the premises until the turkey was already in the refrigerator.

Anyway, Mike and George showed up after work on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in their office clothes, ready to “harvest” a turkey. Mike wore nice wool pants, a cashmere sweater, and his Cole Haan shoes. George, being a metro-sexual, was dressed better. Why they didn’t think to maybe change into rubberized coveralls before rolling through a turkey yard wielding an axe is an indication of how much they faced this challenge with dread and trepidation. They couldn’t even think about fashion attire, they were so busy psyching themselves up to commit cold-blooded murder. I can understand that, sort of.

Anyway, I hid out. I did open the back door once to see a turkey strung up by the feet from the garage door and feathers flying. George looked like a defeathering machine, arms whirling around, yanking out feathers as fast as some sort of mechanical gizmo. My two-year-old granddaughter Corinne was with me, so I shut that door pretty quickly. Later, I peeked again to see Mike yanking at something I don’t want to describe with a very bloody hand. This was about the time the UPS man rolled up to deliver some packages. His eyes grew huge and sort of rolled back into his head before he muttered, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” He threw down the packages and fled, scattering gravel all over my newly-spead mulch just as Mike gave up on the yanking, picked up the butcher knife, and started hacking.

When Mike and George finally came in with clean-ish carcasses, both of them were covered with blood from head to toe, and Mike’s cashmere sweater was in shreds. The story of how that happened is pretty funny if you have a sick sense of humor, but I won’t relate it here because it might actually make some of you sick.
In the end, we got 2 monster turkeys, one of which went to our friends, and the other, the 21 pounder, ended up on our Thanksgiving table.

“So who will help me eat the turkey?” asked the Little Red Hen?”

“We will!” shouted everyone, and we did, and it was fabulous. And now you are looking at a real homesteader. I figure I earned it. I certainly did my share of suffering through it. Mike deserves some sort of award.
By the way, I still have 8 turkeys (they’re technically mine, since I paid for them originally). Only 3 of them are hens, which we are keeping to produce next season’s “crop,” and I’ll also keep the two biggest toms (one for the obvious reasons and the other one in case the first is a dud in the daddy department), and another is reserved for our table, which means I will have two great big, yummy, free-range, hormone-free turkeys for sale for Christmas. $6 per pound. And yes, the way I see it, it’s my investment, so I get to put all the profits into my whimsy account. And I’m not buying Mike another cashmere sweater.

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2 Comments
  1. Wanda Lunsford permalink

    Love it! You should have taken a picture of Mike and George after the assult.

    Date: Fri, 28 Nov 2014 19:54:05 +0000 To: wanda3rd@hotmail.com

  2. Deborah Fuller Hining permalink

    I loved this story. I feel so honored that my dear sister-in-law wrote it. She has a talented way of writing. I was right there in the midst of all that was happening only I didn’t get dirty at all.

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