"That bird is going to kill himself."
As I remember it, Charles is leaning on a shovel, digging a trench, when he says this. I stopped raking debris long enough to glance up to see what he was talking about. The reason for the trench digging is lost to time and dead brain cells but the picture of a thirty pound turkey balancing himself on the lower half of a barn dutch door will never leave me. It was a blustery autumn day in November (which means there must have been an urgent need for a trench) and the top half of the door was swinging back and forth, barely missing "Orson Wells" as we called him. He was doing a 'duck and cover' maneuver, but would not give up his position on the door. Jane, the hen, was staring at him in a confused sort of panic, not knowing whether she was supposed to join him or just admire him from the ground.
Oh, now I remember - we were trenching out the hydrant for the barn water. It had rusted out at the bottom and in order to have water for the winter, we had to get it replaced before the ground froze solid. I remember this because we put down our rake and shovel, went around the barn to get the new hydrant out of the truck bed and carry it back.
To find Orson stone cold dead on the ground, his neck crooked at a forty five degree angle.
"Well," I said. "At least we already have a hole dug." (The search for the bright side of any situation is a knee jerk reflex. I can't help it.)
Charles said, "Are you kidding? That turkey cost us 3.50 and we poured all that food down it. We are going to butcher it!"
Eating animals we had raised was nothing new to us, but we had always taken them to the butcher in Terre Hill for processing because he was fast and efficient. He could kill and clean them in minutes, with no suffering. We had always thought it would not be fair for us to learn on a living, breathing entity. But now, Orson was certainly not breathing.
Charles bent over and looked at the huge bird, so quiet and limp. "I think he would want us to do this." I had my doubts, this sounded very convenient for us, anyway, but once Charles had a project in mind, we were on a set course. The hydrant could wait. He picked up Orson and headed for the top of the barn. My faint protest of "But we don't know what we are doing..." was lost to the banging of the barn door and the wind.
It occurred to me that I had a very very old recipe book in the kitchen. I bought it on a whim at a junk shop and I found it interesting that the recipes had directions like "select a fine hen from the yard." I had never actually used any of the recipes because I didn't think my health conscious family would actually eat anything I made with rendered beef fat or encased in clear natural jello made from pig bones, but I was pretty sure it would have some kind of directions we could follow.
I took it back to the barn. Charles had put the bird on a plank between two saw horses, under the swinging single light. He had collected a variety of tools he apparently thought might be handy - a hatchet, some pliers, hedge clippers. A dry wall saw. The shank I used to cut bailing twine. You know when you take objects out of their ordinary context they can start to look very odd. All in all, watching this was not good for my imagination.
He used the hatchet to remove the head, after some initial attempts with the hedge clippers. The feet came off next. Orson was starting to look like an object, less like the amusing lawn ornament he was when breathing. Charles hesitated. "Good! You got that book! What does it say I should do next?" In the index there WAS a chapter on butchering poultry, a step by step guide....and of course we learned too late that we had done things out of order, but we were sort of committed now.
"Okay," I say. "You need to cut him open *DOWN THERE* (pointing to the diagram) and I am going in to boil water for getting those feathers off. When you have all the guts out (holding the book in the light so Charles could see exactly what guts I was talking about) bring him in and we will finish him up."
So, I guess I could have waited and watched the gut removal, but it just seems that boiling water in the case of butchering or babies is always an excuse for the faint of heart to exit, stage right. I beat feet back to the kitchen, leaving Charles with one hand up inside that bird, and the other holding the book and squinting.
I realize that I am going to have a pretty big pot to hold Orson in all his grandeur. Even without feet and head, he was big. Real big. I mean, BIG. You don't really comprehend how large something is til you have to boil it whole. So I get my biggest canning pot, blow the shelf schmutz out of it, and start filling it with water. I do realize there is a displacement issue, so I don't fill it all the way up. I heft it on to the stove, across two burners, and turn on the flame.
A grey looking Charles arrives at this point, with off putting blood stains up his arms. "There was a LOT of blood, Rodeo. A LOT." I think he went seriously up in my esteem that night. This was a man who did not make his own peanut butter sandwiches. THIS was a man who did not know where our can opener was kept. He would cook something on a grill, but only after I had shopped for it, unwrapped it, seasoned it, placed it on a clean platter and carried it out to where he was in the yard. And by cooking I mean, placing over the heat, sipping beer and turning it while chatting. Now he was actively involved in the business end of meat.
The water is just not boiling. A watched pot, as the saying goes. The book says I need that water rolling and bubbling to get these feathers off. And we are talking a lot of feathers. Some of his wing feathers are over a foot long. I am not sure how this is all gonna work. I know that water better be hot when we put in 30 or so pounds of lukewarm turkey or it will take another hour to bring it back up to temperature again. According to the book, the de-feathering thing is a dunking and stripping action. There is a line drawing over a hundred years old in the book of one hand holding a carcass by the neck, the other yanking feathers off. Charles is not concerned with any of this, and just plunks the turkey in the pot.
And of course the pot is not quite big enough. Orson is posed with his wings over the edge of the pot, his headless neck jauntily poking out of his massive feathered chest, looking oddly like he is soaking off some muscle soreness in a hot tub. I show Charles the dunking motion in the book. He grabs the neck and tries to pull of feathers. Nothing. But the smell is pretty awful. The hottish water is now forming plumes of mist that smell like the barnyard. Dirty Bird.
We have a discussion about how this is not working. The water is just not hot enough. The bird is too big. The book says this or that. To hell with the book. Book is thrown across the kitchen. The turkey (not Orson any longer) is hauled out of the water and out to the yard because we have decided to skin it.
This works pretty well, and we convince ourselves that the skin wasn't any good for us anyway. After we remove the wings and make some judicious slits, the skin comes off and hold its identity - sort of a Turkey Suit. I say I can keep that in the freezer til we decide what to do with it, but Charles looks at me sternly and tosses it in to the trash can. Too late we read about the aging WITH the skin on. We wrap him in lots and lots of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, put him out on the back porch where it is cool and let him sit over night.
We don't call friends the next night to come over and share this feast. Some stories aren't funny or even interesting til a period of time has passed. It's taken me ten years to get around to telling this. It's not that it was too gross or too emotional. It was just that for most people there is no frame of reference for blood and guts and feathers and meat and eating and respect and heroics, outside of a plane crash on a desert island and survival. It made sense at the time and was part of our history. It's one of those memories that, now that Charles is gone, I carry on alone. No one can say whether it happened that way or not, except me. You will just have to trust me on this one.
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4 years ago