By Becca James
They are out again.
The inherent perils of asking an 11-year-old to shore up the poultry netting with willow branches are making themselves evident. Luckily, the turkeys are in a field beside our house so I can keep an eye on them. They can’t do much harm except…I’ve spoken too soon as I see them making their way toward the highway. Luckily, turkeys are herdable, so with a stick and some patience they are soon back where they should be. I imagine they are looking smug about their breach, but in reality their vacant expressions and reflex reactions indicate that the notion of “smug” is not within their grasp.
We have raised turkeys for the past few years. Wanting some turkey throughout the year as well as a special, home-raised turkey on Thanksgiving is our motivation. Although turkey as a protein on our plate is common in our culture, its ubiquitous presence belies the alien-looking creatures that they are.
Yes, turkeys have feathers and beaks like chickens and the domesticated varieties are essentially flightless, but there end the parallels. Turkeys embody a prehistoric look, with elongated, mostly-bald heads, spindly necks and bulging eyes. The toms think quite a lot of themselves. In their efforts to impress the hens, their garish waddles and snoods (the flap of skin on top of their beak) become enlarged changing from red to blue to purple while their tail feathers expand into a “look how awesomely male I am” fan. This can actually become a problem if the toms start spending more time showing off for the hens than foraging.
For the first few weeks, turkey chicks seem to be looking for an excuse to die. After having a few turkey chicks starve to death, we learned that a couple of chicken chicks in with the turkeys provide just a large enough bump in overall IQ to ensure the turkeys eat their food and not their bedding. Wild turkeys do figure this out, so somewhere in their domestication, turkeys lost some of the intelligence bestowed upon them by nature. They retained, however, a good measure of instinct.
It is early evening and my kids are in that time of squirrely pre-dinner boredom. I give one of them a stick and ask them to herd the turkeys around. One of them finally agrees and they are off. The turkeys, having exhausted the bug population in their paddock for the day, are thrilled to be out. They walk at a relaxed pace, seeming rather purposeless until a head shoots forward like a bolt of lightning and a grasshopper becomes dinner. They are excellent hunters with visual acuity much greater than ours. Their eyes, set on either side of their head, can move independently, giving them a field of vision approaching 360 degrees. While the kids walk the turkeys, they will warble their best impression of a turkey gobble for the sheer entertainment of hearing the turkeys answer back in unison.
After caring for these birds for about five months, giving them shelter and safety at night, space, sunshine, grass, weeds, grain and bugs, it is time for their one bad day in the midst of a pretty perfect turkey life. We all help. We give a nod of thanks for their life, wield the knife and it is over. Plucking, cleaning, and chilling the birds commences. Having helped butcher many animals, the kids soon move past the gravity of their actual demise.
With chickens, no one wants to clean the gizzards. They are tough to peel and usually full of grass and muck. But everyone wants to clean the turkey gizzards. These are larger, full of leaves and…drum roll… turkey glass. It is a glistening prize. The beach glass of the mountains. Our feathered friends somehow find pieces of glass to add to their collection of digestion-aiding grit. Turkeys don’t chew. They swallow small stones and, apparently, pieces of glass to grind up their food with the strong muscle of their gizzard. Throughout the months and many meals, the stones and glass (technically referred to as gastroliths) are polished and, when extracted on their final day, appear as if from a commercial rock polisher.
From there, the birds find an icy resting place in our freezer to await the big day. Historians generally agree that turkey was not on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Venison, fish, and possibly geese supplied the centerpiece for the three-day festival of cautious alliance and gratitude between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims. Although George Washington declared the first national day of thanksgiving in 1789, it was not an annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln codified it. He did so after the efforts of writer and activist Sarah Josepha Hale brought the idea of a true and annual national day of thanksgiving into the collective consciousness of the nation. It was also Hale who suggested turkey as the centerpiece of the feast.
And what a feast it is. The heavy air of the house envelopes us with its aroma of roasting turkey laced with sage and thyme. It is one of those smells lodged in our memories. “Smells like Thanksgiving,” someone comments. I wish I had the turkey’s calm acceptance at this point. There seem to be a million tasks to accomplish. Soon the family flows in and the tasks, whether done or not, lose their importance. We gather. We breathe in the substance of family, celebration, good food, and gratitude. For us, it is especially restful as farming tasks are officially downgraded to winter status until spring returns with all its demands. The turkey is celebrated and we are grateful.