When we sit down to our annual Thanksgiving meal, we will be eating a turkey that I’ve reared myself.
Writing that brings me tremendous satisfaction.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been a city boy. I’ve lived in London, Edinburgh and New York. But when I was a kid we lived with my grandmother on her farm in Kent, England, and when my first child was born, the urge to return to my rural roots was overpowering. I just couldn’t see how anyone could raise a kid on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, even if they made a million dollars a year (which I most definitely did not).
So my wife and I packed up the apartment, engaged a shipping company, found a dude on Craigslist to take the bed away and relocated to the Irish countryside, building ourselves a house on a corner of the farm where my wife grew up.
I love living in the country but, to be totally honest, the long, cold, dark winter can be seriously boring. Even with Netflix.
It was to while away the winter hours that I first started raising animals to eat. I began with pigs, buying two piglets off a local farmer, fattening them up, killing them and making everything from black pudding to sausages, bacon and hams.
Since then we’ve eaten sheep, goose and duck, which we have reared ourselves, and I started rearing turkeys for Christmas and Thanksgiving four years ago. We still retain the 27 November habit, through sheer gluttony more than anything else. I think we are one of the few non-American families in Europe to do so.
Our birds don’t grow to anything like the size a factory farmed bird will (we max out at about 12lbs, part of the reason being that our birds roost wild in the trees so they have to use a lot of energy keeping warm at night, energy that would otherwise go towards fattening) but the meat is amazingly good; it is literally bursting with flavor compared to the insipid, dry stuff you so often get flopped on your plate from a supermarket turkey.
This year, we decided to take things a bit further. In a fit of optimism and ambition, we bought seven chicks (two for us, five to sell) at the local bring-and-buy poultry fair, a monthly gathering which is one of my kids’ most eagerly-awaited weekend activities. The days it takes place are marked on the wall calendar in the kitchen and counted down to with feverish excitement.
There are enough breeding pairs on offer to fill a deck of the ark; the chickens, ducks and extravagantly coiffed bantams are all there, in makeshift wire cages, along with the quails, the doves and the stringy game hens originally (and, some darkly mutter, still) bred for cock fighting.
We purchased seven turkey pullets (10 weeks old), which were about the size of small chickens in late August, so by Thanksgiving they would be 21-22 weeks (fast-growing factory birds are killed anywhere after 14 weeks).
The first disaster struck within just two weeks of getting our birds home when a savage tempest blew up with hundred mile-per-hour winds and driving rain. When I went out in the morning, to see how the animals were doing, only six turkeys remained. There was not a trace of their missing compatriot.
The absent turkey had been blown clean away in the hurricane force winds, I concluded. A second turkey simply dropped off its perch and died, but the remaining five remained in good health until earlier this week, when I selected the plumpest cock for the chop.
We don’t feed our turkeys anything special—in fact we don’t even bother buying the fancy organic feed as the conventional feed (pellets made from a mixture of soy, barley and wheat) is almost half the price.
The pellets are their staple diet, and our turkeys can top up as they wander freely over the couple of acres that make up our plot, gorging themselves on all the worms and bugs and slugs they can find.
Actually, though, the real secret of a good tasting turkey is not in the food at all. The thing that really makes a turkey tastes good is exercise, as it is exercise which makes the meat firm, and gives it what is referred to as ‘definition.’
Think about it; if you were going to eat a human (not that I am, I hasten to add) who do you think would taste better—Honey Boo Boo or Usain Bolt?
A big part of the reason I rear our Thanksgiving turkey myself is because I want to teach my kids about where food actually comes from. It is bizarre, when you really think about it, that a human being these days can eat meat every day of their lives and never see an animal killed.
It’s a pretty full-on experience the first time you take a pig or sheep to a slaughterhouse, a whole factory dedicated to death, but when it comes to killing turkeys, at least in this part of the world, it’s a much less distressing operation.
So last week we put the biggest turkey in the car and drove him up the side of the mountain to where our grizzled neighbor Ned killed him for us.
We? Yes, the kids came too.
Although I like having the turkeys around, and they are very handsome for such ugly creatures—and the way their faces turn blue when they get annoyed is hysterical—we certainly don’t get attached to them.
It perhaps helps that turkeys are quite phenomenally stupid, unlike pigs, which are so smart I almost can’t bear to rear them anymore. Do the kids get upset when its time to kill them? In a word, no. I wouldn’t take them to observe if they did.
The reason, I think, is that kids take their lead from their parents. If you are businesslike and non-dramatic and unsentimental about livestock—and turkeys are livestock, not pets—they swiftly learn to be that way too.
Here’s how Ned kills the turkeys. From the roof of the barn is a long loop of rope, through this the turkey is suspended by its legs. Like all fowl, turkeys tend to go quiet when held upside down.
Ned then wraps one arm around the bird’s body and grabs the neck with his other hand, leans all his weight on it, and crack! The neck is broken by being pulled down and simultaneously twisted back on itself. Within seconds, while the bird is still kicking, Ned begins plucking it as it hangs there, as the feathers come out much easier while the bird is still warm.
The whole operation takes about 10 minutes.
My kids were not freaked out by the experience at all. I think this is because they had always understood that the turkeys were going to be killed, and the animal clearly did not suffer.
Cleaning the birds out is a slightly more gruesome experience.
You basically cut a hole around its butt and pull the guts out, then it all gets a bit medieval as you cut off the feet and head with a small saw. This part, I didn’t think the kids were ready for yet, so I did it that night after they had gone to bed.
Once the bird was fully cleaned out, it was time to put it on the scales.
I am not remotely embarrassed to relate he weighed just 9lb.
This is the reality of the kind of weight that you get to with a bird that is living entirely free instead of being a cooped up in barn.
The only way I could have got the bird bigger without compromising my principles would be by waiting longer (by Christmas they should have added another 3lbs), or, if I had a shed big enough for the turkeys to sleep in, lock them up at night.
But I am not sure I would be prepared to give up the experience of walking down the drive at night with the kids and using a torch to pick out the shadowy forms parked up in the big oak tree, their heads tucked under their wing, sleeping just the way nature intended.
And if the bird is smaller than we are accustomed to, so what? I’m not really a fan of turkey curry, and I’d rather eat a little bit of the best turkey meat possible than a mountain of bland, factory-farmed protein.
Luckily there are just eight of us for lunch on Thursday (I told you Thanksgiving never really caught on round here), so there might even be enough meat for seconds—but either way, I guarantee it will be a meal well worth giving thanks for.