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Thanksgiving Turkey

Back to field trips

Narrated by David G. Hodges

NPR on the radio kept me company on my car ride to a family funeral. What with Thanksgiving the next Thursday, there were several segments on Thanksgiving traditions, family gatherings and holiday events. The segment I enjoyed most explained the recent history of the Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey we eat today is called the Broad-Breasted White. This poor bird has been bred rapidly to gain more weight in less time and it has become a bird freak with lots of white meat, short legs, and strange breeding characteristics. The NPR piece talked about the resurgence of the Heritage Turkey, a somewhat more expensive alternative to the Piggly-Wiggly style Thanksgiving experience. The Heritage Turkey is the bird Americans ate until the mid-1950s. It's smaller and according to the segment on the radio, more flavorful.

By the time I got back to Columbia, I was all about getting a Heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving. The internet was the obvious first place to search. There were no stores in the Midlands of South Carolina that offered Heritage Turkeys. There were half-dozen outlets in the Upstate that sold Heritage Turkeys so after looking up their locations, I settled on the Windy Hill Farm in Pelzer, SC because I've been through Pelzer on the way to Clemson to see daughter Mary. I sent an email to Mary and said, "Hey, Baby, when you come home from Clemson on Tuesday, swing through Pelzer and pick up a Heritage Turkey for Thanksgiving. You may want to give them a call first." Mary sent me an email asking if this was for real and I hit reply and said sure, I wanted a Heritage Turkey and besides, I wanted her to check out the Windy Hill Farm to see if it would be a good destination for a field trip. She said she would.

Mary was ready to leave Clemson early Tuesday but she had to wait around until early afternoon for the Windy Hill Farm woman she had called to return to her farm. Mary had asked her if she had any turkeys left for sale and the woman said "sure, we have some turkeys." Upon arrival, Mary was greeted by mother and daughter Cindy and Judy Langley who told her to hop on the farm cart to ride with them to get the turkey. Mary thought that was strange, why do I need to ride to get a turkey? Maybe there are outdoor coolers around back. She hopped in and they rode over to a pen with live turkeys. Mary's face fell: "they're not dead?"

At this point, everything was avoidable. Announce a mistake was made, express sorrow for the confusion, shake hands and leave. Say "No, dad, I couldn't get a Heritage Turkey; they were alive". "Oh, ok, thanks for trying." See how easy that would be?

That is not what happened.

Mary, our youngest of four, looked at those turkeys and said, "I'll take one." It doesn't appear the Langley women stepped in and said, "No, Mary, that's not a good idea. What will your poor father do with a live turkey?" It appears they became co-conspirators with Mary, laughing hysterically along with all of her friends, including Mary's siblings, and her mother who said, "of course you should bring home the turkey." Mary paid $36 for the turkey. Judy Langley asked Mary if she brought a box with her. Mary told her she hadn't expected live cargo so Judy found a box and stuffed the turkey in the box and Mary drove to Columbia, a trip made shorter by the anticipation.

I arrived home that night, think old tired business guy, to find my driveway full of cars either that I bought or once owned. It was wine drinking time and it was not unusual for some of our children to come by to check on their aging parents but this car lot looked like everyone was there, even son Jack's truck. Oh, Mary's home, I thought, he must be here to see her. I wandered in the kitchen to find everyone eating hors d'oeuvres and sipping wine. I poured myself a glass and we chatted about the day and I didn't suspect a thing. After a time, Mary asked if I wanted to hear about the turkey. "Yes!" I exclaimed. "Did you take pictures?" I asked. Mary assured me she took lots of pictures and I asked her to tell me the story. She suggested I pull the bird out so I could look at the instructions while she told the story. I said sure and I asked where the turkey was and she said in the pantry, meaning, I thought, the pantry refrigerator. I pushed open the pantry door and there, standing in Jennie's dog kennel, was a live turkey looking at me looking at her.

The challenge of practical jokes is there needs to be an ending. The children and the sons-in-laws finished his or her wine and off they went, back to their own homes. Mary called her friends and off she went. Sue had things to do; off she went. The bird and I were left to get to know each other. Someone named her Henrietta. What was I to do with Henrietta?

Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, found me putting Henrietta and the dog kennel in the back of my Suburban. I needed to find someone who could process this bird. My major concern was the possibility of ending up at Home Depot buying chicken wire to build her a pen in the back yard. Time was important. We already had named her; we sure didn't want to get attached.

A meat packing plant said, no, we don't process poultry. A poultry packing plant, Columbia Farms, said, no, we don't process birds from the public. A farmer out on Monticello Road said, no, we grow them, we don't kill them. A packing house in Sumter said, no, we don't process birds. Six other meat markets and butchers in Columbia and Lexington said no. One butcher got a kick out of the story and was laughing when we hung up. The best idea of the morning came from friend Billy Mote who suggested I take Henrietta out the Sumter Highway, let her go, drive to the Bi-Lo, buy a prepared turkey and tell everyone that it was in fact, Henrietta.

By this time, the emails started arriving; one suggestion was I offer a presidential pardon, friend Candy Waites sent a formal description of a turkey with its Latin name and helpful information, such as, the Thanksgiving turkey sometimes is called Henrietta and it rides around in a dog kennel; you know, emails like that.

Mid-morning, I had to go by Bob Andrews Motors to get my backseat seatbelts fixed. In no time, every mechanic at Andrews plus Mike Andrews and his wife Kim and their son were staring in the back of the Suburban. Everyone had an idea and half of them pulled out their cell phones to call someone who could process Henrietta. No one found anyone who would touch her. I've learned a good bit about poultry during this experience. There are USDA rules that regulate businesses; individuals don't like the mess and difficulty; even the turkey hunters don't want to pluck a turkey. They field dress the bird and remove the breast meat and that's about all they do. I ran out of ideas and of people to call.

Mike Andrews called a friend who is the owner of a meat packing plant to ask his advice on my behalf. The friend asked him how a turkey showed up at his garage. Mike told him if someone had told him that morning that a customer would show up with a live turkey that needed killing, he would have been able to name that customer.

It was time to call the Windy Hill Farm to find out what the Langleys do about processing turkeys. Judy answered my call and when I told her my name, she started laughing. She loved Mary and she thought Mary's decision to buy a live turkey was the funniest thing she ever had heard and she had such a good time with Mary and she had been laughing since Mary had left the day before and she had called everyone she knew and had told them about Mary and I was thinking, Mary isn't on my good list just now. I've got this turkey in the car and I need to do something, today if possible.

Judy referred me to Kathy Whitby in Belton, SC. She said Kathy raises chickens and turkeys and she processes birds in her yard. This should be interesting, I thought, so I called her. "Yes,"Kathy said, "I can process your bird and yes, I can do it today, but do you want to eat this bird for Thanksgiving?" "No", I said, "we don't have to have her tomorrow but we would like to have her available during the weekend." "Well, the thing is", she said, "a bird needs to sit in the fridge for a minimum of four days before eating or it will taste tough and dry." Eating that bird became secondary to getting her out of my Suburban so I said "sure, that's fine." "How long will it take you to get here," Kathy asked, and I said a couple of hours. "Good," she said, "I'll have the water good and scalding by the time you get here." Water good and scalding?

Sue finished up at her café in the early afternoon and she decided to take a field trip with me. The three of us headed to Belton, SC, a farm town between Greenwood and Greenville.

Kathy and Steve Whitby own 25 acres on Murphy Road just off Highway 247, near the Saluda River. Their property runs from the road up a hill to their house and then back into a couple of fields in the back. Chickens run free. The house is a renovated old farm house and the barn looks to be original. Steve is a real estate appraiser and he spends a lot of time on land not his own. He has accepted many offers over the years for items found on such property that he has carted back to their yard; some things he has used and other things sit there waiting for a future use.

Kathy started an organic farming and poultry business two years ago. She and Steve have big plans for a roadside stand in a few years but until then, they have a busy chicken and turkey processing business along with organic eggs, fruits and vegetables available for sale at their house. She has a website for her business, Barefoot Farms, and she walks around the land with her Blackberry attached to her belt.

The setting was beautiful. The sun was thinking of dropping behind the trees and on the hill we were standing, we could see the deer coming out of the woods between us and the road. Other than the strange equipment scattered about distracting the view, it would be fine indeed to sit on the porch with a glass of wine to enjoy the sunset. Each piece of equipment, however, had a function that involved Henrietta. First of all, they stuffed her upside down into a tin cone hanging from an old child's swing set and pulled her head and neck through the hole in the cone. Then things got bad for Henrietta. After a procedure involving a paring knife, she moved to a scalding station that held water preheated to 150 degrees. She was dipped in the water for exactly thirty seconds and then she was moved to a fascinating machine called a Whizbang Chicken Plucker. I kid you not. The Whizbang had a blue plastic barrel with rubber protrusions around the sides and on the bottom, each about two inches long. Henrietta went into that barrel, the power was turned on and within five seconds, she came out naked, I mean, she virtually had no feathers left. It was unbelievable. Kathy moved what used to be Henrietta to a table where Sue and I were given a lesson in turkey parts and a few minutes later, we were handed a bag for the cooler.

Kathy charged $20 for the processing; it would have been less, she said, if she didn't have to set up everything for one bird, and Sue bought some hot pepper salsa and some blackberry jam and two dozen organic eggs. We ate dinner on the way through Greenwood and we got back late Wednesday evening. I figure this Heritage turkey ended up costing substantially more than a Butterball turkey, what with the cost of the bird, the cost of the processing and the gas back and forth. It was fun, though.

Henrietta is in the fridge, Jennie the Boxer has her kennel back, and Mary is somewhat of a celebrity. Things are getting back to normal at the Hodges home. I still have more than my share of people calling me trying to gobble like a turkey but the experience has been, um, interesting and entertaining.