Getting to Know Your Thanksgiving Turkey

FARM TO FREEZER: One man watches the process of preparing the bird for sale—at his own existential risk.

I’ve never sat down at Thanksgiving dinner wondering anything about the turkey, but the farm-to-table movement has made me feel hypocritical about holding a jumbo turkey leg in one hand while covering my eyes with the other. So this year, I vowed to get as close as possible to the bird while it was still alive and with feathers. I wanted to see it as a living animal before it became my dinner. That meant watching the whole process of preparing the bird for sale, until all that remained was skin, bones, and meat sealed in a plastic bag waiting for me at the checkout counter.

John’s Live Poultry, on the Northwest Side, is one of the city’s handful of live poultry shops. It has been in business for 50 years, proffering chickens, hens, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese, roosters, rabbits, and turkeys, all free-range and hormone-free, all courtesy of Middlebury Produce in Middlebury, Indiana. Every November, John’s sells nearly 2,000 turkeys. For $1.99 a pound, people can specify exactly what they want and how they want it cut.

When I showed up on an early Saturday morning, a handful of people were waiting in line. There was a deer head mounted above the cash register. The shop was very clean. It also smelled like a chicken coop. José Baez, who has worked at John’s since 2005, led me down a narrow hallway, past all the caged animals, to the back of the store, where two turkeys, one black and one white, lolled around empty crates. Baez told me black wild turkeys are tastier than white ones, so I took his advice, and he carefully picked up the black turkey and held it by its legs. Another worker nonchalantly approached the upside-down animal and, like a well-mannered host, offered me the knife. I couldn’t do it. “A lot of people can’t man up to the job,” Baez said. “I’ve had some wild guys in here, tattooed up, fresh out of jail, and they couldn’t kill a turkey.” With mariachi music blaring, roosters crowing, and hens clucking, the worker slit my turkey’s throat.

The rest was a blur: The steel bleeding cones. The feather machine, with thousands of tiny rubber fingers plucking the turkey bald. The bird’s intense green eyes, still open after Baez chopped off its head. (“Turkeys always have the most beautiful eyes, man,” he said.) I asked for my turkey to be cut into pieces because I didn’t think a 19-pounder would fit in my studio apartment’s oven. When Baez removed its innards, he pulled out a handful of eggs. My turkey, it turns out, was female. I didn’t know what to say.

When I went home and described the experience to my fiancée, whose eyes are also green, she began crying. I stood holding the bag of turkey pieces and could not stop touching it. I could feel the heat coming through the bag, and I wondered if I was weak for not being able to kill the turkey or if I might as well have made the simple choice of a 5-, 10-, or 20-pound frozen bird at the grocer. I put the pieces in the refrigerator with every intention of cooking them, but each time I opened the door, I promptly closed it again.

A week later, I moved her to the freezer.

 

Illustration: Brett Affrunti

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