Thursday, November 29, 2012

Death in the Afternoon: The making of a turkey dinner

Disclaimer: This post involves blood and guts and death. I think this is totally natural and even a little awesome, but I know others might not.  Read at your own risk. 

“About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”  - Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon 
 In America, every fall we come together for a mass genocide. Millions die while we enjoy the crisp autumn air, the changing of the leaves, and take in a football game. We celebrate this time of death, and even cherish it. It is a beloved tradition to be shared with family. We call it Thanksgiving.

This past Thanksgiving 45 million turkeys gave their lives so that for one day we could look like a Norman Rockwell painting. All trussed up, golden skin crispy and glistening, surrounded by mountains of sides and dressings, this is our turkey's finest moment. What it lived and ultimately died for.

This guy knows where his dinner comes from.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but like almost every aspect of American eating, it has been scrubbed clean and sanitized. No one knows where that all important bird comes from. Rather they just mystically begin to appear in our grocery markets frozen and sterile about a month before the big day.  Many don't even take the time to prep this trophy of gluttony themselves, rather buying birds that are self basting, and have a timer built in. Think about how weird that is for just one moment. So removed from our food, we don't even know if it's cooked until a piece of plastic tell us so. In the past I have been no exception to this rule. Leaving the bird to the adults and doing my part by opening several cans of jellied cranberry sauce. Well this year, I hosted my own thanksgiving, and like every other aspect of life, I had to adapt to Paraguay. And there is no buying turkey in Paraguay dead, let alone one that comes with a hotline.

Yes, I think he'll do just fine. 
Turkey is not a common food in Paraguay. While chicken may roam freely even in some of the most urban areas, Turkey is a rare sight. However, I live in maybe the strangest most eclectic town in Paraguay, so obviously there was a family that had about 15 hanging out in their front yard, just waiting to be sacrificed on the alter of the American appetite.

The family that sold us the bird, like almost every other family in Paraguay, was just the nicest. While last year I off-ed a chicken for our Thanksgiving celebration, a Turkey seemed out of my league. I didn't trust myself to be able to kill it at all, let alone swiftly and humanely. So the family kindly offered to help.

Still alive
It was a full service operation from start to finish. They first caught the bird, making sure to pick out the best one. They decided to give us their male who had grown too big, because he was injuring the girl turkeys. It felt like feminism in action. You're too big of a douche; you disrespect women; you get fucking eaten.

They then brought in reinforcements. Apparently none of our sellers were strong enough to end the beast either. They needed a young strapping man to do the job. Enter the neighbors. Next thing I knew the whole neighborhood was watching the spectacle, wondering who were these American girls, and why do they need a turkey?

Finally our assassin showed up. I could barely hold this thing up with two hands, but homeboy thought nothing of it. He grabbed the feet with one hand, and the neck with another, and went to work.

The preferred method of poultry killing in Paraguay is to separate the head from the spinal cord, over your knee. I used this technique on the a fore mentioned chicken, and it was not easy. I am certain the chicken had a horrible death. And it seemed our turkey friend met a similar fate. I can't say I endorse this method. I suppose there is less blood in the process, but it took the guy like three tries to get it. Our Turkey may have had a nice life of open fields and open ladies, but I would say his last moments were less than dignified. So much for hoping some one could do a better job than me.

Despite the inglorious end, it was now time to clean the bird. Again, I have chicken experience, but this the size increase seemed to make it a whole 'nother beast. I decided however that the least I could do is get my hands dirty and help out. So Julia and I plucked the feathers, and I helped clean out the innards along side the matriarch of the family. This process is messy. My hands were covered with blood, and well, let's just call it 'goop'. It is impressive just how much is in there. A continuous parade of tubes, and organs cascaded out of the bird, and there always seemed to be just a little more.

Most of the innards, and the feet were given to the various animals hanging around, but the family was generous enough to give Julia and I the gizzards, neck, and head. As a token of my appreciation I tried to let them have these treasures but they couldn't bear the thought of a turkey dinner with out the head. - WHAT THE HELL DOES SOMEONE DO WITH A TURKEY HEAD? - I fed it to the street dogs outside my house.

We drink to you Mr. Turkey. 
Julia and I brought the bird home, and toasted to it's noble sacrifice. But the mess wasn't over for me. I decided that roasting a bird whole is silly. The parts take different times to cook, and also I was to borrow a grill from a friend, so I needed to quarter it up. I have exactly zero sharp knives. But that's ok, because there is somewhere around zero sharp knives in Paraguay. I spent the next couple hours, double checking all the guts are out, cleaning any left over and trimming the weird extra skin above the breasts. I did most this work with a multi-tool in desperate need of some sharpening.

The bird then got tossed in a brine to be grilled an eaten the next day. (I'll have highlights of the actual meal in a following post.) It was time to wash my hands, open a beer and order take out.

Mo wants to help.
"Why would you want to be in Encarnacion laying by the pool with all the other PCVs when you could be elbow deep in turkey guts?" Julia asks me. It was a good question. I had voluntarily forgone a resort weekend with my friends as my Thanksgiving in order to be "more in touch with my food." It may seem crazy, but I had a lot of fun being elbow deep in turkey guts.

The effort exerted to get my turkey gave it that much more value. I had earned my meal, and had put that much more love in the food. Yes, a factory farm turkey from the U.S. would be way more juicy, and tender, but my bird had character. It had wandered the field, and caroused with the ladies. It had lived.

I know that I'm not necessarily normal. When I began writing this post, I had hoped to create a macabre telling of an event most people wouldn't even imagine, but honestly, I had too much fun for that. Macabre doesn't describe the day. It was joyful.  I laughed for most of it. I made new friends. I shared American Thanksgiving. And I learned something new. In sum, I felt good after.

Definitely not normal.