We meet our neighbor on the road, walking alone, his beloved 16-year-old dog Buster having died last month. “It’s Buster!” I say to our dog Ruby. To Ruby, everything from that household will always be Buster and she greets Mr. Buster warmly.
“Have you turned your heat on?” he asks us, rubbing his cold hands together. “Only a couple of fires,” says the Bearded One.
“Buster’s ashes are still on our woodstove,” says Mr. Buster, and I picture a beautiful urn, flowers, a well-chewed Kong ball, and a profile shot of a distinguished Staffordshire Terrier. “We made an altar like that for Jake,” I say. Ruby’s litter mate died 2 years ago, and Mr. Buster says he can’t believe it’s been that long. We agree, bid him a good day and finish our mile-and-a-half morning walk.
I’m harvesting the dry shelling beans today — the red-speckled Bingos and Etnas and my favorite, the black and white Yin Yangs, the Taoist symbol of balance.
I pick out 20 of each kind of the most perfect beans as seed beans for next year, put them on a plate with a candle, and add it to the harvest altar I just decided to make after the morning walk. Farming — even small-scale recreational farming — is about hatching and hatchets, growing and killing, sowing and reaping, and I’m feeling the reality of the killing part with our fast-approaching date over at Momma Goose’s.
And then the phone rings and it’s Momma Goose Herself. The day is clear and perfect, this weekend it’s supposed to be raining, the equipment is available and she and “Jonah,” her oldest son, are going to process some turkeys this afternoon and tomorrow. Would we like to come this afternoon? Yes, we’ll be there. But we won’t harvest our turkey today. I offer to bring her an apple cake for after the poultry processing and Momma Goose accepts.
When we arrive, Momma Goose has a little processing camp set up at the back of the property and a huge stump fire going that will also be used to burn the turkey remains. Everything is clean and sanitized, salt and ice and water at the ready, sharp knives, a radio playing softly. This is nothing like a chicken factory. Momma Goose and I walk down to the turkeys.
They are 4-month-old broad-breasted whites that she has raised from chicks for meat. They’re healthy, free-range turkeys, already weighing around 40 pounds. There are 50 birds and it’s costing her $14/day in feed, so she’s reducing the flock some. At $50/each, she still just breaks even. She’s giving us ours, though. We’re having 14 people here for Thanksgiving largely because of this and the rest of the day’s menu, consisting wholly of produce we’ve grown here, right down to the cornmeal in the cornbread.
Jonah and another friend put two toms into the cage. It all weighs about 80 pounds, they guess, and they carry it back to the camp. They turn the turkeys upside down into the cones where the heads stick out. The birds look alert, but Jonah does it so calmly, they don’t flap much. No squawking at all.
Then he takes a very sharp knife, slits the bird’s jugular vein and the turkey begins to bleed. It dies very quickly. The eyes dim and shut in maybe 10-12 seconds. Jonah doesn’t cut clear through the neck because that would open the windpipe, and when the bird is then scalded in the scalding pot, hot water would get into inner cavities and cause trouble. It’s a skilled, careful cut.
I watch as the blood pours out and the bird kicks a bit. Then it is clearly dead and Jonah removes it from the cone and dunks it in the scalding pot for 15-20 seconds. 140 degrees. I hold the feet for Jonah when he is called away for a moment. After it’s scalded, the feathers come out much easier. The next move takes a lot of muscle. Jonah lifts the heavy wet bird into a spinning tub with rubber spikes and the feathers fly off. Then he lays it on the butchering table and I help pluck the remaining feathers. It takes awhile.
I feel a bit woozy with the smell of the blood, fresh poultry meat, and turkey poop. I watch him expertly cut up the bird, remove the gizzard which has a bunch of white rocks in it, and carefully separate out the liver, heart and kidneys. Nothing is wasted. The cavity is quickly and thoroughly rinsed out with a hose.
“Do you ever think of these birds as pets?” I ask Jonah.
“No way!” he says. “I could never do this if it was a pet.” The family ducks, Bob and Lucy, are pets and the only ones with names. I think of Kimber and the Seven Chicks, all with names, waiting at home for us. Their time will come. Lordy.