Talking turkey in Austin

No one brought a camera for the turkey slaughter class in Austin, including me. It was more personal that way.

Heck, it was personal on so many levels. First off, one of my best friends in the world hosted the class at her little urban farm in East Austin. Leilani is from the Bay Area and I have been missing her for a few years now as she’s settled into life in Austin. Part of settling there involved raising chickens and turkeys. She and her beau, Luke, starting keeping a few Rio Grande turkeys, the oldest relative to the original turkey of North America.

Instead of just buying turkeys every year, they reasoned, they would retain a breeding pair and let the tom and hen go for it. This spring, the turkeys mated secretly, and the hen hatched out 8 adorable little poults. Tom and mom protected the poults, showed them what to eat, draped their wings over the babies at night. When I first saw the poults, they were almost full grown, five months old. And frankly, they were ready to eat.

I had come to Austin for the Texas Book Festival to be on a panel with a famous vegetarian, Jonathan Safran Foer; a professor; and a bad boy chef named Jason Sheehan (for that round-up, see here). Like any book related trip, I wanted to do some hands-on work. It was a delicate issue–err, Leilani, can I kill one of your turkeys? and teach other people how to raise turkeys…at your house? Any other friend would have been annoyed. Leilani, on the other hand, was delighted. She loves hosting parties and doing workshops.

And so, the four people who could make it to a Halloween turkey slaughter class arrived that Saturday, dressed for the occasion, ready to learn. I was charmed by the easy-going nature of Texans, their good humor, their independence. That was why they were there. After an hour discussing the ins and outs of turkey husbandry, we went up to the coop to collect our girl for slaughter. Leilani grabbed her, I did some wrangling–these were almost wild turkeys!–and we brought her down to the burning sage area. The turkey seemed mildly curious, we said our thanks and goodbyes and got out the loppers (my new dispatching implement). Her death was swift, with good intentions from all of us. Then we dipped her in hot water, gathered around the table, and plucked all her feathers away.

The difficult part–the real reason for anyone to take a class like mine, was the evisceration. I showed people my almost fail-safe method to avoid contaminating the meat. This is the thing that trips up most people, and by showing them this, I feel like I am really imparting some important, empowering knowlege. Someone fished out the lungs. Someone else examined the gizzard, cut it open, and saw what the turkey had been eating. And then our turkey was all cleaned up. And she was beautiful, with perfect conformation, wonderful black feet, meaty breast area (but not abnormal like those Standard Whites). She had been born on this farm, lived a great life, and now was ready for eating.

Almost. First we put the bird in some salted water for a few hours, just to get any residual blood out. Then we rinsed and dried the turkey off, wrapped it in a tea towel and stowed it in the fridge to rest.

While the turkey rested, we were invited to a great dinner party at Boggy Creek Farm, an urban farm nearby. The farmers–Carol Ann and Larry–have been farming in Austin since 1991, and have a famous farm stand that Austinites flock to every week. I was so amazed how sweet and friendly Carol Ann and Larry were, they showered me with gifts like Holly Honey and smoked tomatoes. The dinner, cooked by Elizabeth from Farmhouse Delivery, was off the hook–local blue cheese and apples, arugula salad, and seafood stew made with local shrimp and fish, and finally persimmon pudding. Holy crap, Texans eat good!

I was only in Texas for a few days, so I left Leilani and Luke instructions for cooking the turkey and hoped for the best. Chefs had told me heritage birds need high heat, over a shorter period of time, and the turkey should be rotated every fifteen minutes or so. They also said to remove the legs and roast or braise them for a little longer. Leilani seemed a bit skeptical–their last turkey had just been okay. Today Leilani called me to give me the report. After four days of resting in the fridge, she rubbed it with olive oil, salt and pepper and put it in the oven.

“I didn’t turn it every 15 minutes,” she admitted. Despite that, the turkey came out great–roasted at 400 degrees for a little less than two hours. The breast meat was tender and juicy, the legs were perfectly delicious. She sounded like they are going to harvest the rest of the turkeys, keeping the tom and hen and following the cycle again next year. After I hung up the phone with Leilani, I felt so proud of her–of us–for raising, preparing and cooking our own Thanksgiving turkey, with love.

14 responses to “Talking turkey in Austin

  1. I couldn’t make it to the Turkey class. There is a lot I need to learn about my food and I would have liked to have gone.
    I did make it to the book festival and I listened to the “are you going to eat that” panel. It was interesting. Your book is the only one I’ve read, but based on that panel, I would think that the other books are very – what? boring maybe.
    I loved your book. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. I was dissapointed that everyone in that room didn’t find out about the entertainment value in your book.
    I learned some things about my food and where it comes from by reading your book, but there were so many other things to discuss.

    Oh well. I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Austin. It’s alright!

  2. Sounds like a great class. And the turkey sounds good too. Brining a turkey really helps to produce a tender, juicy bird. I’ve also used the trick of icing the breast for pastured turkeys, pulling the bird out of the fridge an hour before start of cooking, placing it breast side down on a bed of ice, and then putting a bag of ice inside the cavity to rest on the breast from the inside. The theory goes that by the time the legs are cooked, the breast is usually overcooked. So this chilling slows the cooking of the breast down enough that everything is done at the same time. Also, we grill our birds over charcoal and add sprigs of rosemary to the coals from time to time. Gah! Can’t wait for Thanksgiving!

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler

    I’m happy to hear you met Boggy Creek friends I knew when I was an urban farmer in Austin. Thank you for helping me reclaim a name for what I’ve been doing since I left the farm I grew up on.

  4. I am very curious about that panel with Jonathan Safran Foer, etc. How did that go? Did you find common ground?

  5. I never thought to use my lopping shears to do in a bird…I guess that would be more certain than the axe where the chicken can duck out of the way at the last second? We put our turkeys in a feed sack with a small hole cut off the bottom corner for the head to stick out of. It keeps the wings and legs from being bruised up in the after chop flapping. I think my poor husband is still traumatised from being delegated executioner.

  6. cindy: awww! you’re so nice. i think just food is a bit dry. jsf’s book isn’t boring, but it feels theoretical. cooking dirty is pretty hilarious, but not “educational”. glad you made it to the panel, and you should have stopped by and said hi.
    kate: from what i hear, you are not supposed to brine a heritage turkey–i guess it makes it taste weird? but i’ve brined them without ill effects.
    dolores: no problem, we’re in it together!
    aida: thanks for asking about the panel. i felt like it was too short a time slot for four people (kind of my fault, i was a last minute addition) to really go into depth about the topics. it might have been better if we read from our books at the beginning, to get a flavor. jsf and i decided we have similar goals: namely to stop factory farming and the suffering of animals. that’s why i raise my own meat, and that’s why he is a vegetarian. because food is so personal and so complex, meat eaters and vegetarians almost always become antagonistic, and so it was a good discussion. i do worry, though, that he burns bridges with people like bill and nicolette niman, who are total heroes and are providing a positive alternatives factory meat.
    kathi: i like that idea of using a feed sack. we had a woman who sewed something like that for killing chickens and it was just lovely.

  7. Thank-you for answering my question. I have read Jonathan Foer’s book and felt he basically thinks meat is murder, however much he tries to pretend he does not. I agreed with him about factory farming. I just wish he had kept the focus more tightly on factory farms and not ventured into criticism of responsible farms, like Niman.

  8. How big are the lopping shears that you use?
    Can you pass on your tip on how to avoid contamination?? Or where I can find it. I’ve done in some chickens and would like to know how I can process more efficiently. Thanks!

  9. Hi Novella,

    Just finished reading your book. You are the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of Oakland, CA! (But much funnier and without all that fussy chef stuff!) My boyfriend and I run a community garden here in Pittsburgh, PA, and I’m a real fan of urban farming. I’m hoping to get a few chickens this spring, if I can convince my borough that they are “acceptable” pets. Not sure if I’ll progress to pigs, but I’m really impressed by what you’ve done. I wrote a tiny review of your book as my latest blog post. Don’t get excited, I don’t think anybody reads it (my blog). Just thought you might enjoy an additional bit of praise for all your efforts.

    Thanks for an entertaining read, and I’ve enjoyed re-living it “real-time” through your blog. I’ve been seeing our garden loppers in a new light lately!


  10. Hi Novella,
    Loved your book…best book this year for me. (I listened to the audiobook).
    My husband and I were a couple of those back-to-the-land hippies in northern Idaho (Priest River) in the 70’s. What a time! I have great memories of butchering pigs, turkeys, cows…without electricity or running water! Now we live in SW Colorado on 10 acres with a garden and chickens and goats and love every minute of it.
    Keep up the good work. You’re an inspiration for us to do more with our place.

  11. Hi Novella, I just learned about you and your urban farm today from video posted by CHOW on Vimeo. What an inspiring story. So much so I had to repost the video on my blog about gratitude with links to this site here:

    Thanks so much for participating in the video. My wife and I cannot wait to read your book. Keep on doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  12. maureen: i use loppers that are made to cut 2 inch diameter branches. you just need to mind the vent/anus area while processing. i tie a string around the vent to prevent fecal seepage, and also don’t feed the animal for 24 hours before slaughter…
    hi rusty! that’s so cool. you guys must like the snow…
    mike: thank you, that’s a sweet post.

  13. It was painful to read about the evisceration but your purpose is good and educational too. Of course, you are sharing empowering knowledge. Hats off to you for doing that! And yes, I am going to follow you from now on:)

  14. Hey, I’m also curious about the loppers — I asked about it at your Seattle reading at Town Hall — would you mind posting/sending a picture of the loppers you use? Do you have to pull the head down and hang onto it, or does the bird stay put?

    Our turkey surely was tasty, but we also miss having them around. Thinking about doing a breeding pair. Do you know what breed your friends were raising? Any idea if they’d recommend the breed?

    We brined our guy for ~20 hours, and he was fine — perfectly tasty. He was a Blue Slate, apparently a somewhat rare heritage breed?

    You do awesome work. Thank you.

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