Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving thanks for food, connecting to food

Growing up in America, "meat" is often just that: a cut of meat, something you get from the supermarket in a neatly wrapped package, perhaps epitomized by the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breasts. "Boneless" and "skinless," of course, they are disconnected from almost any sense that they were ever part of an actual animal that lived and died to become your food (though I suspect the chicken--wrapped in skin and supported by bones--probably looked at its life a bit differently).

Over the past several years, I've gotten somewhat closer to my food. The majority of the meat our family eats comes from a local farmer. Each year, we get a quarter of a cow, a half a hog, twenty chickens, and a turkey at Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving turkey, of course, is the one time of year that many Americans do, in fact, see their food in a way that reminds them that it was once, you know, an actual animal. For us, getting 20 chickens each year (and usually buying a few more on top of our "farm share") I've had a lot of opportunities to prepare whole chickens rather than chicken parts (surprising no one, it's a lot of work to turn a whole chicken into chicken parts vs. roasting it whole). This preparation has made me more aware of the meat I eat as an animal, since you spend time putting spices under the skinning and jamming it's chest cavity full of onions, apples, or beer cans.

I had an interesting opportunity this year to further deepen my understanding of where my food comes from, and my connection to it. Earlier this fall, when I went to pick up my score of chickens, I was talking to the farmer about an addition they were making to their one building, an addition that would allow them to process their own chickens and turkeys. Talking about it, he invited me out to help with the turkeys.

And who doesn't want to help with the turkeys?

Thus, the Monday before Thanksgiving I found myself out at the farm bright and early, helping process 27 turkeys. I told one of my students, later, that I had processed these turkeys, and he kind of looked at me blankly. Processed? What does that mean? So to be clear: we took the turkeys from alive and ornery to table-ready. I even brought home and cooked our turkey that afternoon, so I had the whole cycle in one day. If you're interested in the gory details, I'll put them in the next paragraph. If stories of poultry death and dismemberment bother you, you might want to skip this paragraph (it is, after all, fowl stuff).

Okay, but seriously, it was neither macabre nor hilariously funny. Our farmer is a part-time minister, so perhaps not surprisingly we started the whole thing with a prayer, which set the tone as one of respect for the animals that were becoming food for us and others. Turkeys had to be caught from the trailer they were in, then they were brought to the first room, where they were placed in an inverted cone, upside down, so their heads and necks hung down. This calms them. At this point, someone finds what amounts to the chin, and a deep cut kills the turkey and bleeds it out. It took a while, and it probably wasn't totally painless, but I'm sure it could have been a lot worse. We've all heard stories of chickens or turkeys flopping around with their heads cut off, but this was not that. When the turkey was dead and done bleeding, it went into a hot water bath to loosen up the feathers. From there, it went into a round machine (kind of like a cotton candy machine, if that helps you visualize it) with rubber "fingers" all around the edge. The machine spins the turkeys around and the "fingers" remove the feathers. I think it also washed them at the same time. From there, the now-naked turkeys went to the next room, separated by a window and a sheet of plastic. We worked assembly-line style, so the first person in this room cut off the head and feet. The next person checked the skin for any bits of feather that might be left--they were looking for little nubs that were basically under the skin and had to be worked out. The next person removed the anus and anal glands. From there, it went to me, where I reached into the chest cavity and removed the gizzard. Then I reached in again to remove the guts. From this delightful mass, I separated the liver (which was still attached to the gall bladder) and then carefully removed the gall bladder, trying not to pop it, which would ruin pretty much anything the bile got on (I had a 100% success rate!). From there, the turkey carcass went to someone who got the lungs out, though a number of times I overzealously got the lungs out along with everything else I was grabbing. She might have had some other job too--I got caught up in my own job. The next guy removed something from the neck and also did most of the processing of the gizzards that I was taking out: they had to be cut open, all of the rocks and grass within had to be dumped out, and then an internal membrane removed. I think that was pretty much it. The giblets all went on ice in a bucket, while the turkeys went into a different bucket with ice and then into an ice bath, since they have to be cooled fairly quickly.

Just a generation or two ago, this kind of thing was probably far more common. Both of my parents had stories from their childhood: my father's family getting together with other farmers to butcher hogs (and "use everything but the oink"), my maternal grandmother killing chickens in the back yard for Sunday dinner. These things seem almost gruesome to us now, because they are outside of our experience, but they are a very real part of the food we eat, and one that we've become disconnected from. I appreciated that this Thanksgiving allowed me to deepen my own connection just a little more.

There was also an interesting fellowship that developed between all of us who were doing the work. Most of them had done it before, either at that farm or at their own farm, but at least two of us were new to it--myself and a man in his 20s who works as a cook at a nice restaurant. It was very companionable to be standing around this metal table, sharing this work. You'd sometimes talk about the work, but mostly we were getting to know one another, since most of us didn't already. I'm noticing it more now that a friend of mine has pointed it out, but there's something to be said for the companionship of shared work and the social aspect of that. We often think of "social occasions" as parties, as things we prepare for and work hard to make sure everyone has a good time, but there's something to be said for inviting people--or being invited by people--to share in some work together. It's more productive than just doing it yourself, it's more enjoyable, and there's an interesting social aspect to it. 


  1. Working together for the common good - what a concept! :) I agree with you that it's important to know, remember, and acknowledge how our food gets to the table. Even better, you participated in the process! Good for you.

  2. I admit I have never thought about lungs or anal glands. I wonder what turkey lungs look like, especially in context -- and reaching into the chest cavity is through the hole left by the removal of anus and glands?

  3. My grandparents raised chickens for food. My Mom didn't eat chicken most of her young life because she watched her dad "prepare" the chickens. It was easier for her to buy it from a store and not think about how it got there I guess.

  4. Marcy: yes, that's how one reaches into the chest cavity. In fact, one turkey got passed to me with the anus still intact and I had no idea what to do with it. Okay, I did know what to do with it: pass it back!

    Melanie: I have this vague feeling that it goes both ways: that some people who've seen where food comes from would prefer a little distance, but also that *not* being exposed to the process makes it seem worse than it is. Of course, I'm sure there's a big difference a small farm that's operated on humane and sustainable principles and a CAFO, which probably makes it seem better or worse, depending on which one you see.

  5. This has been very informative. We have a dozen chickens in the backyard that we got as chick's with the intention of having eggs. Over half of them have turned out to be roosters. I foresee rooster processing in our future!