Once you kill the turkey, you don't get to like, relax and maybe drink a beer while watching "The Daily Show" and hours later be like, “Oh shit I never put that away” like you do after coming home from Whole Foods.
You have to move on the dead turkey situation. One can't sit around and think to oneself “I killed that animal, why did I kill that animal” all night pensively. The turkey is gonna go bad in the trunk of your car if you linger.
Four years ago, with the trunk of my Buick open at dusk, trunk liner splattered in blood, my cousin and I were just a few dangling cigarettes away from a perfect Italian-American stereotype. Murderous, compulsive eaters, killing an entity, moving it illegally across state lines for an all-night orgy of completely unnecessary food preparation.
It should come as no surprise that I found a turkey to shoot using Craigslist. A farmer had ads up in early October and I set up an appointment over email and text message. He then had my cellphone number and would send me texts every five or eight days with pictures of my turkey or a pheasant at some fair or farm or another.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my cousin and I drove out to Aberdeen to get our two turkeys. The farm itself was off a series of two-lane winding roads, completely innocuous, without noticeable frontage or address. We drove over a plowed field to a series of nondescript buildings. A Confederate flag and a flag reading “Redneck Pride” flapped.
Turkey Man stood there, with a bird partially hobbled by twine. I was getting two turkeys—a “wild turkey,” and a large free-range Giant White. For both, I had agreed to pay the princely sum of $35. I had seen a picture, but without something for scale, of the enormous-titted white thing—it just looked like a big-ish bird. As we pulled up to the farm, the size of the animal standing next to the farmer literally made us hoot aloud. That motherfucking bird was huge. It was three feet high and weighed 60 pounds. This was the first inkling I had that I was in way over my head with this turkey situation.
This big fat nasty turkey was also fucking delightful and adorable. It had surprisingly awesome Fourth of July colors. Typical “surprised reptile” face—round, perceptive eyes, so expressive, yet still somehow completely stupid. Its neck was like a gigantic brilliant blue, shocking pink, and subtle white-grey ear of Indian corn. I petted the turkey and stroked its ribby warty neck and the skin on its neck was soft and wobbly, exactly like a carpet of soft, pleasant skin tags. Its ass-end stank like an army latrine. What a nice thing it was! I thought to myself, for a moment, perhaps we'll just take the turkey home and love it for a pet instead. It sat in the gravel dumbly unafraid as my cousin and I petted and looked at it.
We poked around the farm a bit. There was a telephone pole covered in decomposing rooster heads. “I call that my cock tree,” he said. “Every time I kill a rooster I nail his head up there.”
“As a warning to the others?” I joked. There was a series of long white buildings with steam coming out of one side. “Those are my chickens in there,” he said. We trudged on, a mat of mud and straw on the underside of our shoes.
We came upon a tiny elevated pen made of pallets. Inside, shitting into a mud field, a grotesquely fatted hog was scratching and grunting, flies endlessly landing and being swatted away from his huge shit-encrusted balls. “He's gonna get butchered up soon, you like bacon?” said Turkey Man. Another nondescript cinder block building sending out steam, another series of outbuildings. “You'd be surprised who's growing weed out here,” said Turkey Man.
“I don't know if I would be . . . surprised.” I said. A large, rusty knife was plunged into a tree trunk. I pulled it out. “Should I kill it with this? Or is this too dull?” I asked.
“Nah, I got a gun for that.” A flock of chickens, guinea fowl, and dogs followed as as we trudged around. Everywhere there were piles of trashed groceries and junk shot full of holes. Turkey Man went to a later model truck that wasn't a junker, and pulled out a gun. Suddenly there was a lot of commotion. The wild turkey, which had been toodling along side us with the chickens, hid in the flock and ran away from us. Not the Giant White, though: It hobbled along as always, not trying to get away.
Turkey Man handed me the lightweight “air gun.” I posed for an absolutely execrable photograph. Then I shot the face off the turkey. The turkey, very surprised, vomit-geysered out blood, shat, and flailed about in the gray gravel dust getting very dirty. Turkey Man dumped a bucket of rainwater over the worst of it and we stuck the still-warm, damp turkey in a cardboard box in my trunk.
That was the first turkey. The wild turkey, which was also coming home with me, was hiding in the flock of leghorn chickens, because it knew the farmer would not shoot a laying hen. The farmer pretended like he was going one way, then unexpectedly, he made a sudden turn, ran, and charged at the flock, shooting the wild turkey and driving away the chickens all in one go. It was dead through the breast, no flailing, just down instantly. I held the wild turkey by its warm, muddy feet and set it in the trunk of the Buick.
Turkey Man insisted my cousin and I come with him to meet his family. A yellow farmhouse somehow emerged from across the lane, the straw-mud, and outbuildings. An absolutely ancient woman lay under a pieced quilt in the front room watching “Dancing With the Stars.” A pale boy in too-tight footie pajamas bounded down the stairs and gave me a hand-drawn picture with crayoned hearts and a hand turkey. Turkey Man took the money from my hand and gave it immediately to his plump blonde permed wife, who then handed it to the ancient woman on the couch. “Happy birthday, gramma,” she said. We said our goodbyes and drove off languidly, into the gray dusk.
At 7 p.m. that night the Turkey Man texted me for the last time. “Make sure you take the guts out and clean the meat within 12 hours or the meat's ruined” it read.
Here we come back to the back-lit, bloody trunk, my cousin holding the flashlight in the front yard. First, I took a large pair of long handled loppers, and with a horrible shattering sound, I cut off the turkey's head and feet. Then I began ripping the feathers out of the turkey's body. It smelled like onions and turkey shit. Wet, bloody, and covered in bits of farm trash, I realized plucking was more involved than I'd hoped. It was at least 10 p.m. when I had the turkey plucked enough to wash it off. Quills still stuck in the yellow-white creamy colored skin of the bird. I stank and had to strip off some of my clothing because I couldn't come inside after being covered in the filth of plucking it.
I covered the kitchen table with newspaper and watched YouTube videos. I felt ready and got out my most precise knife. With utmost delicacy, I cut a circle around the turkey's asshole. Using my bare fingers, I pushed and pulled around the asshole of the dead turkey until I felt a bunch of stuff clump together in a sort of sac. Innards flopped out into a trash can. The lower intestines resembled a series of transparent, inflated condoms, inside which I could see bread and spring onions. Weird, unfamiliar organs appeared—a loose sack of black, fermented grain flopped out and broke. I pulled out and popped some sort of pressurized bag with my fingers to see what was inside—stinking gravel pebbles and crushed acorns shot everywhere.
Then the odor came out of the turkey's body cavity, and holy shit, what an odor. I began dry heaving; my body folded over involuntarily. My head filled with blood and saliva flooded my face. My cousin snapped photos as barf spit drooled out of my mouth. It is the worst smell in the world, ever. It was like if you ate nothing but iron pills and cat food for a month, and then shat that out, times a million. That smell was so permeating, I swear I can still smell it four years later if I exhale very hard. You will never get away from that smell once you smell it. That smell is inside every perfect, delicious smoked turkey breast sandwich forever.
This is what processing meat by hand does to you. Once you personally smell the inside of a turkey, a cold-cut combo never tastes the same. It always has a minutely detectible undernote of the smells and tastes of the turkey's asshole. It forever has the faintest trace of the smell of the turkey's curiously inflated intestines, loose corn rattling about inside.
Somehow, I did not vomit, but instead, shoved my hand inside the turkey again and again, scraping the inside of it clean, until flakes of liver and membrane and turkey bits were picked out of the turkey until the whole, enormous corpse could be washed in the kitchen sink.
I positioned the turkey carcass in the sink like an obese toddler, and washed it lovingly. I coated it in salt and washed the salt away, again and again, until all the pale pink blood was safely drained away. The turkey was too big to cook whole—I cut a quarter section off it to cook for Thanksgiving dinner, and just that section alone weighed 13 pounds. The remaining 50 pounds of turkey meat went into the deep freezer (where it would last until shortly before the following Thanksgiving).
It was about 3 a.m. when we finished up cleaning and both turkeys were completely processed and ready to be cooked the next day, which was Thanksgiving. I was feeling pretty subdued the next day and really couldn't enjoy eating anything. Both my cousin and I were completely exhausted. We spent the day eating, getting wasted, and napping and the holiday concluded uneventfully.
It has been four years since I killed and cooked the turkey and every year at Thanksgiving I think about doing it again. Every year since, I have a self-conscious fourth-wall-breaking sort of moment by that tank of chilled turkeys in the supermarket, like when he gets the paper at the end of “Goodfellas.” I think to myself, I don't have to buy one of these. I could kill my own, I just don't feel like it but I could kill one—because I am a killer of giant birds; I personally killed a bird and ripped its guts out. Every year since I have had that feeling, but instead I buy a clean sanitized organic bird at Wegman's, because despite it being an authentic experience, killing your own bird is, in the end, truly an authentic pain in the ass.