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by Slow Food USA intern Lloyd Ellman

Disclaimer: Please be aware that the following graphically describes the slaughter of a live animal.

“I kind of hold their heads in my hand as the bleed out.”
“I don’t know. I guess to comfort them.”

One of the farmers confessed this as I stood, drenched in the unforgettable perfume of singed feathers and coppery death, contemplating the bittersweetness of a most American ritual. In all, I held nearly 50 heads over the course of that day.

Slaughter day.

Today, it’s become easy to ignore the fact that an animal was killed to provide me with meat. Just consider the store-bought-sterile prepackaged chicken cutlets found in most supermarkets that resemble a chicken about as much as I do. This emotional disconnect, sometimes termed carnism, prevents real compassion for farmed animals and is something, I suspect, introspective eaters struggle with frequently. I decided to tackle the problem head-on in an ongoing quest to settle my conscious and discover some truths about how meat can be good, clean, and fair.

Each year the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a Hudson Valley farm close to my heart, raises two flocks of turkeys for Thanksgiving. One breed is the commercially common Broad Breasted White, a creature that embodies the perils of Frankensteinian hybridization (its legs are too short to allow it to breed naturally), but it remains tasty and, more importantly, buxom.

The second flock comprises the gamey and wild Bourbon Red, a majestic heritage breed that fell out of favor in the 1930s and has experienced a revival in popularity, spurred by the deep flavor of its well-used musculature. These would be our quarry.

How do you slaughter a turkey? It was the first question that I asked and, depending on the answer, it is one that can speak volumes. There are any number of horrible stories and videos of mega-farms abusing helpless, suffering animals. These are unforgivable transgressions, but provide a useful contrast to my experience.

The real work of the slaughter, I discovered, is done by hand, with a blade no bigger than a paring knife and the assistance of a stainless steel cone that holds the turkey securely. Following the well-practiced example of my tutor I cupped the back of the bird’s neck and pinched between the spine and the trachea, creating a depression of pocked skin soft enough to slide the knife through without damaging the animal’s air supply. It takes two cuts, one on either side of the neck, to sever the two carotid arteries and release a disconcertingly warm stream of red.

After a few minutes the turkey, looking more and more like meat at each step, was scalded, plucked, and sent off to be disemboweled, cleaned, and finally packaged for sale.