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.