Dead Bird Walking
It's not often that a journalist gets the chance to speak with residents of death row. But here in her suburban backyard, Carrie Stewart has put me nose to nose with two of them.
Make that nose to beak. "This is Dumb and Dumber," Stewart says, introducing me to two Tom turkeys. "They're kind of stupid."
Stupidity is not what earned the two creatures a death sentence, however.
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Dumb and Dumber are paying the price for being turkeys in a bird's cruelest month. Despite the loving attention they've received from Stewart over the past seven months, come Thanksgiving these turkeys will be the centerpiece of a feast for Stewart's family and twenty guests, in a cornucopia of almost entirely homegrown items. "They've become pets," Stewart says, running her fingers through the white feathers of one. "But we have to keep reminding ourselves that they're dinner."
It's enough to drive a PETA supporter crazy.
Stewart, an exceedingly hospitable Indiana native, has dreamed of fresh Thanksgiving turkey for years. This season she's making it happen, and compared with her efforts, the heavily funded (and often hilarious) do-it-yourself projects of Martha Stewart seem downright puny.
After settling last year with her family in a ranchette in what was then unincorporated Broomfield, Stewart purchased eight turkey poults from a local farm-supply store and began hand-feeding her future dinner, as well as a few birds she later gave to friends. The surviving pair of turkeys, now strapping 45-pounders that were once small enough to sit like trained cockatoos on the shoulders of family members, share the yard with a couple dozen geese, ducks and chickens that roam the property -- birds kept for fresh eggs and companionship. "I could never eat them," Stewart says of her non-turkey charges.
But that's not the case with her massive white turkeys, which stand wing-to-wing alongside Stewart and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Amanda. As Stewart talks up the birds, the turkeys fluff their feathers with pride. "They're showing off," Amanda says. The birds move with deliberate grace, supported on massive legs. Crimson flesh as warm and red as spilled blood wraps their heads and necks like some grisly shawl -- an ironic bit of biological fashion, considering their pending decapitation. But as the birds relax and soak up the sun, their heads slowly turn a baby blue that matches the sky overhead. Stewart speculates that the color shift is akin to a human flushing: red when agitated, less so when calm.
Standing in their dignified presence, you can't help thinking about their future date with a basting brush, corn-bread stuffing and an electric carving knife.
Two turkeys have already met that fate. A few months ago, Stewart processed a couple of her birds and put them in the freezer. "The kids were mad at me when I did the other two birds," she says, emphasizing "did" as though she were a hit man. "They were friendlier than these two guys."
"They were the only ones that would talk to us, and you killed them," Amanda grumbles.
"Well, yeah," her mother responds. "They're dinner."
Stewart steps over to the freezer, just inside the back door of the porch where Dumb and Dumber spend most of their time, and pulls out a neatly wrapped, frozen carcass. The turkeys come closer, peering through a window in the door. Their heads turn a deep shade of crimson.
In a few days, Dumb and Dumber will lose those heads at the hands of Stan Waddell. He and his wife, Lori, run an FDA-licensed bird slaughterhouse, Northern Colorado Poultry, in Nunn. Most of the couple's business comes from small farms in the northern part of the state, according to Lori. But these days they're seeing a number of homeowners like Stewart who've raised their own holiday meals. By the time Thanksgiving is over, the Waddells will have processed turkeys for about fifty families.
"People are becoming more conscious of what they're eating," Lori says. Large turkey producers raise birds using practices that bother some consumers, she explains, and they often wonder about the integrity of the turkey meat.
Dale Stewart, a mechanic for United Airlines, is one of those consumers. "There's something to be said for raising it yourself," he says of the homegrown Thanksgiving turkey that the Waddells will process for him. "You know where it came from, you know what it's been fed, you don't have to worry about how long it's been sitting on the store shelf."
But the biggest reason for raising your own dinner is a matter of taste. "There's more flavor," Lori says. "I've never heard anyone say they'd prefer a frozen turkey over a fresh one. Never."
While raising a bird is relatively easy, killing it is something else. That's why the Waddells are very busy this time of year. "It's a good thing to know how to do your own birds," Lori points out, "but doing them is a very messy, non-glamorous job. A lot of people want to raise them but don't want to process them themselves. They don't want to kill them or put their hands inside a bird to clean it out."
Although Lori can gut a turkey -- by hand -- with ease, she leaves the actual killing to her husband. (The birds are stunned before their throats are slit; they're then bled upside-down before being machine-picked of feathers.) They deal with the birds as humanely as possible, but customers still occasionally have trouble handing over their future dinners. "It's typically the people who name them," Lori says, laughing. "I tell people, 'They're not pets. Don't name them if you're going to eat them.' And I really don't want to know their names. A couple people have gotten upset, tears, you know. They say, 'Oh, they were good.' I tell them, 'Oh, they'll be better on your plate -- don't worry about it.'"
Forty percent of all Thanksgiving turkeys are fresh, according to Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation, the turkey-growing industry's largest trade organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C. (The group's Web site, turkeyfed.org, includes a wealth of turkey facts and information.) And while Rosenblatt is reluctant to rate the taste of fresh birds above that of her frozen constituents -- some people prefer fresh birds simply for their convenience, she says, because they don't have to be thawed -- she does reveal that she'll enjoy a fresh gobbler on Thanksgiving.
A number of Front Range specialty shops and supermarkets carry fresh turkeys during the holiday season. Paul Nickless says that Esquire Market, his family's business, has been selling fresh holiday birds for 53 years, and they're becoming increasingly popular. "There is a difference in flavor," says Nickless, who has never eaten a frozen turkey in his life. So far this year, Esquire has taken orders for close to 700 fresh turkeys (at $1.49 a pound).
But none of those birds are likely to have enjoyed the care and attention that Stewart's lavished on her own turkeys. For the past few weeks, she set a space heater on the back porch so that Dumb and Dumber will stay warm on cool nights. Before going from gobblers to gobbled, the birds have also been on a two-week "finishing" diet.
"They follow you around like a puppy," Stewart says, stroking Dumb -- or is it Dumber? "But I don't think I'm going to have any problems eating them. The whole idea was to grow our own."
She takes her hands off the bird, then rubs them together, a gleeful look in her eye. "I think they're going to be good."
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