Yesterday, with the help of my friend Clarence, I finished butchering the last of my turkeys. Clarence, who grew up on a farm and has continued to keep animals his whole 83 years of life, had never seen, let alone tried, a poultry plucker. When I told him about the one I’d borrowed, and what a great time I was having with it, he asked me to let him know the next time I was butchering so he could come over, lend a helping hand, and give it a whirl at the same time. Having learned so much from Clarence over the past couple of years, I was thrilled to be able to pass on some knowledge to him, for a change.
Before I lit the fire yesterday, I left him a message on his answering machine letting him know I was butchering today. I had just gotten the scalding water temperature up to where I wanted it, had hung and was cutting my first turkey, when Clarence appeared at my gate. “Don’t you just have the perfect timing!” I called out when I saw him, quickly finished the cuts on the turkey’s neck, rinsed my hands and, wiping them dry on my pants, made my way over to greet him.
Clarence never brings his truck into the yard but prefers to stop at my gate and walk in. He talks to all the critters on his way towards the house, calling out as he goes, ‘Hello goats, hey there duckies, how ya doing doggy,’ meeting and greeting his way up the driveway. There is often a chorus of replies: ‘mmm-baaaa, quack-quack-quack, gobble-gobble’. What is always absent is Tui the dog’s bark, which impresses Clarence to no end. He takes this to show how intelligent she is. “You know my dear, she never barks at me,” he happily reports as if for the first time on nearly every one of his visits. “She knows me… you know… knows my voice.” He rounds out the thought with a final affirmative “Mm-hmm.”
Today, he had brought a big beef rib bone for Tui. He’d already given it to her when I’d spotted him, and she was happily trotting back down the driveway, head cocked to one side with the weight of the bone, balancing herself as she made her way back to her spot on the grass where she flopped down and started to work greedily. The bone must have been about twenty inches long. With the prize between her teeth and her paws, her Christmas had come early.
As I drew closer to him I was not greeted by the usual, ‘Hello my dear,’ but “Are your hands bloody?” Well, that’s not a question I’d ever thought I’d hear aimed at me, I thought, and stuck my freshly rinsed hands out for him to inspect. His eyes cast down searching for the answer instead of waiting for my reply. Then, clutching my hands in his and looking them over with care, he triumphantly declared, “Yep, they’re bloody,” pointing to a spot of blood on my ring finger that I’d missed. “OK, I’m satisfied,” he said, dropping my hands and continuing his march towards the barn where I had my butchering station set up.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, spotting something that he couldn’t ignore, he veered quickly off course towards the hung turkey: “Oh, my dear, you haven’t got him… her, cut well enough on the right.” Without pause, he took out his knife and expertly finished the job that I had rushed through in order to meet him a few moments before. I was surprised at how good his eyesight still is at his age, and impressed at how quickly he judged the situation and worked deftly to rectify it. One thing I’ve learned about Clarence is that he hates to see an animal suffer. While he is happy to teach these difficult skills, he’s also quick to finish the job if it is not done right soon enough.
For the rest of the day, we worked steadily together, taking turns at catching the turkeys and scalding them. He asked that I show him how to use the plucker with the first turkey. Suitably impressed and eager to try it out, he did the next one. “Wow, this sure works, my dear!” he called out over the whir of the plucker as he laid his first bird on the rubber spokes, his eyes widening in surprise as he watched the feathers fly off the bird. I looked over to see the result of his newly learned skill, and, in a momentary lapse of concentration–so excited about communicating his wonder at the job the plucker was doing–he nearly lost the bird to the grip of the plucker. “Wow, you see that?” he said, quickly turning to catch hold of the fluttering bird and recover his grip. As he regained his composure he laughed, “You ever drop one of these?” (For those of you who want the answer, click Poultry in motion.)
I let him do all the plucking today, as I could see he was interested in the machine. “Did anyone tell you that I’m taking you for lunch today?” he asked, one hand on the neck and the other on the feet of the turkey, the wet corpse sagging heavily between them still steaming from the scalding water, mist rising up around Clarence like a scene in a B horror movie. “No,” I replied, looking over at him as the mist evaporated: ‘Elmer Fudd butchers his first turkey,’ I thought to myself.
It’s what I love about Clarence. He’s is such a character, he is almost a living caricature of himself: red and white quilted plaid jacket, buttoned down shirt, blue-jeans, Gortex hunting boots, completed by his green, Elmer Fudd hunting hat–replete with permanent cougar teeth marks from his attack 10 years ago. It’s his ‘Signature Collection’ line of clothing. You could take a photo of him today and, by digitally changing the background scenery, make it true for any season: here’s Clarence in the winter, here’s Clarence in the spring, here’s Clarence in the summer, and here’s Clarence in the fall. The only thing that would be altered to indicate the changing season is what he is wielding in his hands: in spring a seed catalogue, in summer a shovel or pitchfork, in fall a rifle, and in winter a snow-shovel. Yet Clarence’s simple taste is enchanting (the more so because he is unaware of it): underneath he is real, unassuming, and one of the most humble people I’ve ever met–not a pretentious bone in his body.
Having cut and plucked our way through the four turkeys, I ask him if he would mind if I added a couple of roosters. “No better time than now, my dear,” he hand-gestured to all the butchering paraphernalia about us. I’d been keeping the extra roosters partly because they are really pretty, but primarily because I like to let my hens (and thus my flock) ‘do their thing’ when the desire suits them to go broody (the technical term for motherly). For a lot of my time here at the farm, I have relied mostly on the hens to increase the numbers in my flock, supplemented occasionally by my feeble attempts at incubating eggs. It was only this past summer, after a miserable hatch rate (both mine and the hens’), that I resorted to buying in some stock.
With the four turkeys done and on the table cooling, I looked at the roosters and began mentally weighing them. I want to cull out the smallest and keep the heaviest for breeding stock. I’m trying to develop my flock into good, all-purpose egg and meat birds–those who watch their figures get the knife around here. I spotted the two I thought were the smallest, caught them with my fishing net and brought them over to the hanging tree.
“Can you do this one, Clarence?” I asked, holding up one of the most beautiful roosters I have for him to see. “He’s just too pretty, I can’t do it.” I had been wanting to keep the reamining roosters: the Magnificent Seven I called them. I had grown quite fond of them and these two even had individual names. I still struggle with the ones that have names. Of course, once they were cut I was fine and did the rest of the processing, minus the plucker step, which Clarence was pretty thrilled with operating at this stage. I was also concerned that my knife wouldn’t do a quick enough job of the roosters. These ones in particular had glorious manes and, after doing in a bunch of turkeys that have no feathers on the neck, I knew my knife wasn’t sharp enough to get through all those feathers. I was relieved when Clarence obliged me.
Finally, as we were doing the final clean-up of the area, he touched my arm gently and said, “Awe, I’m glad you got all that work behind you.” Throwing the last of the feathers on the fire he asked, “You ready to go for lunch now?” I rinsed the table-top and cutting board with soap and water, covered the blood up deep with sawdust, stacked the buckets and other items away in their place and carried the birds over to the garage. Clarence tipped out the scalding water and tidied up the fire and plucker mess. Once done, we headed into town for a hot lunch. It was a lot closer to dinner time than lunch by the time we were done, but it tasted good nonetheless! It is amazing how good a hot meal feels after a day out working in the cold weather, and I said so as I thanked Clarence for lunch.