Yin Yang Time

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.

Little Orca whales all lined up in their dried-out pods.

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.

Me and Momma Goose

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.

A hen on the left, a tom on the right.

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.

Turkey processing camp

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.

"Jonah" has turned the first turkey of the season into meat.

“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.

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6 responses to “Yin Yang Time

  1. What a lovely, gritty, realistic look at what it truly takes to make food. I can imagine what it must have been like for you and Keith. It’s going to be difficult for you to part with the chickens, but I’m sure the next time, it will be easier, because it won’t be the first time. It’s been so very rainy and cold here, with the damp sinking into my bones. I have had one heck of a week, with my dryer conking out, my computer headphone port going on the fritz, and tv troubles to boot. The tv problem has been resolved, the computer has a stop gap fix applied, and the dryer Andrew and I are attempting to fix ourselves. Tonight we took it apart and tried to figure out what is causing the problem. I’ll get some advice tomorrow. If I don’t get it fxed soon it’ll be laundromat for a few loads! Well, it’s almost 10:00pm, so I’ve got to be shuffling off to beddy-bye! Night Christi, Keith, Ruby, Garfield and all creatures great and small and Farmlet. Sending all my love! Looking forward to our next phone conversation, as always! ❤

  2. P.S., I like to think, sometimes, That Daisy and Jake are up in heaven together looking down on us….with Alex of course! I’m missing them alot.

  3. Love the last stick drawing. A true quandry for someone raising their own food. Those beans look awfully good. Vegan plus eggs anyone?

  4. Christine Widman

    Yes, what it truly takes to make food.
    I am reading a non-fiction book about the English Herberts, Earls of Pembroke. The first Earl, William Herbert, was granted his title by King Henry VIII in 1540.
    Then, Land was life. Ancient & inherited signals provided the landmarks for life.
    “March 25 was the beginning of the farming year, the first hint of spring & the seeding of the future. Easter marked the fullness of spring…the fertility of nature defeating the darkness of winter. In early May, the whole village would offer prayers for their crops and for the animals, ‘beating the bounds (walking the boundaries) of their fields.”
    To the people of the manor, “Beating the bounds wasn’t some folksy festival; it was a way of defining the means of survival…and more. The land was the central mnemonic of people’s lives, the map of who they were.” Walking the boundaries was a way each person could see the blessings of the fruits of the fields and it was an act of neighborliness, “in living, walking and accompanying one another….Land was not a commodity but the matrix for existence.”
    It feels to me that you are living this.
    You meet and talk to your neighbor as you walk the boundaries of your communal road. You see & imbue the spiritual symbol of balance as you shell your beans. You bring apple cake to Mother Goose and her family – which required a kind of hatcheting of apples – as her family shares their knowledge of “turning turkey into food.”
    This – it seems to me, Christi – is the heart of life.
    And is a thanks giving.

    • Thank you so much for this beautiful response, Christine. Your words, and Kathie’s and Sheila’s, complete the blog and I love you all. We’re in this together!:):)

  5. Loved reading and seeing the saga of the turkey. Wish all turkeys ( and chickens) could have such a loving demise. Looking forward to a really fresh turkey dinner. Thanks for sharing your interesting week. Mom

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