The Turkey Trial – Part 2: Preparing Thanksgiving Dinner

Posted by Mom on November 10, 2018

What do turkeys like to do on sunny days? Have peck-nics.

Our turkeys were Artisan Gold turkeys, a breed that likes to be outside foraging. In essence, they acted much like wild turkeys. We put their mobile shelter into our orchard and gave them a safe area to graze within an electrified fence. Every week we moved the shelter and fence to give the birds new pasture.

Given the choice, turkeys like to eat grasses, seeds, berries, and insects; and that’s just what our birds dined upon. Between the orchard rows we have lush grasses and forbs for the grazing (decades ago, pigs lived on that same spot and their marvelous soil-building legacy is still evident). Within the rows are an understory of shrubs, among which grow some currants and comfrey bushes that the turkeys liked to dine upon. Of the two plants, the turkeys showed an obvious preference for comfrey. Every plant within their fence was stripped of leaves. Thankfully, comfrey is very resilient!

Next to the orchard is a line of raspberry bushes and this years was a bumper crop for the berries. We couldn’t keep up with the canes production and would come across lots of spoiled berries when we were filling our baskets with ripe berries. We started filling a separate basket of spoiled raspberries for the turkeys and tossing them over their fence. The raspberry season lasted over two months and the birds quickly clued in that if we came to pick raspberries then they were likely to get some too and would come crowding by the fence hoping for a treat.

Which side of a turkey has the most feathers? The outside!

We marked the date on the calendar: Thursday October 4th, Processing Day. Dad took the morning off work and the Little Harrolds and I took the morning off from regular lessons. The day was to be a firsthand lesson in where our food really comes from. As the day approached Dad scrambled (once again, I admit, we cut it very close) to put together a poultry processing area behind the barn. He ordered lumber, drove over an hour to buy a turkey-sized restraining cone and freezer bags, appealed to his buddy for a stainless steel counter, and ordered the necessary knives and scissors on Amazon. With that done, he erected the frame of a lean-to, set-up the turkey plucker, and asked his accommodating brother to assist on the big day. Phew!

Finally Processing Day was upon us. We brought out of equipment, set everything up and were ready to start. I should point out that we are still very new to poultry processing. A willing neighbour heard about our plans and offered to come assist us. We were grateful for his advice and experience. He informed us that while he was quick and ready to help newbie homesteaders like ourselves, taking the life of an animal is not an easy thing to do and he had to mentally prepare himself before arriving. We also asked Grandpa to help us, which he (perhaps naively) agreed to do. The roll call on Processing Day was Dad, Mom, Accommodating Brother, Willing Grandpa, Helpful Neighbour, and three Little Harrolds.

We started small. Since we still had a surplus of roosters from the batch of eggs we hatched back in April, we began with them and worked our way up to the turkeys. We also had a broiler chicken that we’d dubbed Tub-O’Lardy that was three months past her processing day (of the original eleven broilers we started with, nine were taken out by a family of raccoons and one died from heat stroke). With the chickens finished, everyone was in their groove and prepared to upsize to the turkeys. In total we processed five chickens and six rooster that day.

We have some memorable highlights from Processing Day, for better or worse. First, one rooster was so small that Dad couldn’t fit his hand inside; an eager daughter was happy to give eviscerating a try. Second, willing brother was off to meet a potential client straight after our morning’s work and wore an XL garbage bag to protect his outfit. Third, I wrestled a turkey without wearing gloves and had a talon puncture my ring finger (I still can’t fit my wedding band on). Fourth, Dad looked at his first processed turkey and recalled the story of the Grade C turkey that Dave prepared for Christmas dinner for Morley and the kids… fans of Stuart Mclean and The Vinyl Cafe should get that!

What is the most musical part of a turkey? The drumstick.

We processed our turkeys on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving Weekend. Never before had we eaten a fresh turkey. Our past turkey cooking experiences started by thawing a rock solid bird in the fridge days before we planned to cook it… the same time that our fridge was full of all the other ingredients we needed to prepare Thanksgiving dinner on top of the usual things we already stored in the fridge. But not this year! Our just-processed turkeys were briefly stored in a freezer set to 4℃, a temperature maintained by a special gizmo Dad connected to the freezer. In the end, we sold two fresh turkeys, cooked two for our Thanksgiving dinners (one for each side of the family) and froze the remaining two birds for the future.

We had long anticipated those Thanksgiving turkeys and were not disappointed. One of our hosts, as he cooked our turkey, commented that “there’s enough pressure cooking a turkey for a group of people, but even more when you’re cooking one that people raised”. He need not have worried. The meat was moist and rich in flavour. When carving it we were struck by how red the dark meat truly was. No surprise, really, these birds actually used their muscles and behaved like turkeys, eating what they wanted and their bodies’ craved. These were very nutritious turkeys! Remember all that comfrey they were eating? Comfrey is a bioaccumulator; a remarkable plant that reaches deep into the soil and pulls up nutrients, which then move through the food chain or return to the soil through decomposition. All that comfrey munching while in the orchard made for some nutritious turkey meat.

Beyond Thanksgiving dinner, we made use of the two turkey carcasses for stock and generated 24 cups of turkey stock. Afterward, the remains were given to the chickens, who turned them into delicious, healthy eggs.

In the end, we figure it cost us less than $2/lb to raise the turkeys on organic feed and to power the electric fence. That estimate excludes the infrastructure costs of fencing and the materials necessary to build the mobile shelter. If we want to recoup those costs, we’ll have to grow more turkeys next year. If we consider how we can ethically raise turkeys and end up with nutritious and flavourful food and then compare that to the daily work of caring for the birds and the eventful Processing Day, it might just be worth it to do it all again.