Whitesburg KY
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Butchering turkey was like killing a hog

Points East

We mostly ate ham for Thanksgiving when I was growing up in Letcher County in the head of Sweet Home, Blair Branch. Usually the weekend before Thanksgiving and sometimes on Thanksgiving Day itself, we butchered a hog or two and Mom baked a fresh ham.

To this day, given a choice, I’ll take a fresh ham over one that’s been country cured every time. And I’d rather have a ham than turkey but it’s nearly impossible to find a fresh ham this day and time.

The reason we didn’t eat turkey very often was because we simply didn’t buy meat at the grocery store and because turkeys were pretty hard to raise. We had salt-cured pork two or three times a day, every day, from December until June and, believe it or not, you can get tired of it.

Mom ordered baby, whiteleghorn cockerels by the hundreds which we raised to frying size to sell and supply our own table. By November I’d be so tired of it that I’d swap a schoollunch chicken sandwich for bologna and figure I’d gotten the far better end of the bargain.

Chicken for Thanksgiving at our place would have been considered in the same league as two-day-old leftover mashed potatoes and cold cornbread.

Turkeys don’t lay many eggs but if you ever try eating a turkey egg, I’m here to promise you that it will be a one-time thing and that you’ll feed it to a hungry dog. And even the dog may take one sniff, and stare you down before he walks off and leaves it for a less discriminating mongrel. Dad was not keen on keeping fowl around unless they fattened fast or produced eggs.

Raising turkeys on a mountain farm was pretty hit or miss. We never tried to have a yearround flock but we’d sometimes hatch off a few by getting eggs from someone who did raise them and then putting the eggs under broody chicken hens. They pretty much had the run of the place and ranged for food, but they still had to be fattened up on corn to be fit to eat.

Come feeding time a turkey would eat more than 10 chickens and even run the chickens away until it had its fill. My dad was of the opinion that if he was going to waste that much corn on raising a turkey, we might as well buy one. So even when we did raise turkeys, they seldom made it to Thanksgiving. We usually killed them young, as soon as they were big enough to eat, in late summer/early fall and rej oiced that they did not taste like chicken.

B e – sides standing around eating and wasting feed, butchering a full-grown, 30-pound (live weight) tom-turkey is no easy task. By the time I was eight years old, I could grab a chicken, wring its neck, scald off its feathers and have it ready for the frying pan in less than 10 minutes.

Butchering a turkey was more like killing a hog. In the first place, we didn’t run them down and chop off their heads with an ax. I have never seen anybody do that. A full-grown turkey does not willing walk up to a chop block and tell you that it’s ready to surrender all. Catching one and holding it down would involve some bruising if it didn’t actually give you a whipping and then strut off.

The process on Blair Branch began with a well-placed .22 rifle bullet in the turkey’s head. You could clean one chicken with a teakettle full of boiling water. It took a #2 15-gallon washtub full of water to scald a turkey and another tub of water to do the cleaning. Before the task was over, wing feathers had to be removed with wire pliers, one at a time. An hour and a half later you might be wet and bloody and have a carcass ready for the stove while thinking to yourself that it darn well better not be tough.

But come this Thursday, if everything goes according to plan, Loretta or I will get out of bed around 3 a.m. and turn on the oven where the 22-pound, storebought bird will be sitting because we’ll have it stuffed and in the roaster before we go to bed the night before.

And when we gather around the table in the early afternoon, I will, at some point, mention that we usually had ham when I was growing up and Jennifer will roll her eyes and say, “Oh please. Do we have to listen to this tale again? Why didn’t you just go out and buy yourself a ham?”

And I will say, as I always do, “Next year, I’m going to do just that.”

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