Vegetarians, look away. In the pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit, Jennifer Reese, author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, does an experiment with her own birds to see if it’s more cost-effective (and tasty) to raise and cook your own turkey for Thanksgiving. The results are not for the weak of heart.
“The turkeys are gross,” Mark said one morning.
“You’re just realizing that?” said Isabel.
“They’re funny,” said Owen. “I like them.”
“I know you do,” I said. “But I think we have to get rid of them.”
“Thank you,” said Isabel.
“No!” Owen said. “I love the turkeys.”
“They’re not pets,” I replied primly.
“Yes they are. Pretty much.”
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I said. “If you go out and play with the turkeys for an hour this afternoon and every afternoon, we can keep them.”
And so that day, after school, Owen dutifully went outside to play with the turkeys. Fifteen minutes later, he came back in. “You can do it,” he said, “but I don’t want to watch.” When my father came over a few days later, Owen turned on the TV very loudly and we killed the turkeys. It occurred to me standing there with those two unwieldy birds dead at my feet that I could just put them in the trash. But no. I couldn’t. My father went home and I set up an old propane burner in the driveway, boiled a ten-gallon pot of water, and dipped the turkeys, one at a time.
Then, in the wintry dusk, I crouched in the gravel and plucked them bare. I cleared off the kitchen counter and lined it with newspaper. Cleaning those big birds took close to an hour and the mountain of gore was chilling to behold. Then I put the turkeys in black garbage bags, rubber-banded them shut, and stuffed them into the freezer. It felt more like cleaning up a crime scene than putting aside stores for the winter.
Months later, we finally hauled those turkeys out of the freezer. The hen was a fat beauty on the platter but, even brined, she was as dry as any turkey I’ve ever eaten. Perhaps drier. The six-pound heritage bird looked like a long-legged chicken. In my butchering, I had broken off the knob at the end of a drumstick, which now resembled something out of a horror comic. Contrary to everything I’d read about the succulence of heritage turkeys, he too tasted like every turkey I have ever eaten. Perhaps drier.
Make it or buy it? Buy it.
Cost comparison: After killing, plucking, and cleaning, I paid close to $7.00 per pound for my heritage bird. I could have bought an organic heritage turkey for $7.00 per pound and avoided the mess. The other bird wasn’t a heritage bird and for her I paid effectively just over $2.00 a pound. Going rate for ordinary turkeys at Safeway: $1.00 per pound. Of course, my turkeys had okay lives, however short. That’s something. If not enough.