Cleaning a Turkey for the First Time: My Experience

If you've never had fowl, I highly recommend it -- for the summer anyway.  The birds are quite interesting to watch and if you spend time with them as chicks, they're not unfriendly.  I allow the birds to free range while I work outside in the summer and they would follow me around, sometimes choosing to sit down next to me as would a cat or dog.  In the garden they would eat bugs as I worked, both contributing to the garden and giving my mind another avenue of appreciation of God's creations as I weeded.

On our country/slightly-suburban homestead, the only livestock we've had to date is fowl.  We have raised chickens for eggs, guinea fowl for eating ticks and warning us of intruders, and most recently, turkeys just to see what they brought to the table, if anything.

Point #1:  Turkeys are HUGE.  Perhaps not a surprise to some readers, but as a self-taught homesteader I was a bit naive.  Our male turkey stood over 3' tall to the top of his head and his feet, outspread, were almost as big as my man hands.  "Jurassic" is an accurate description of large turkeys.  They really do remind you of small dinosaurs.  The females were about 20% smaller than the male.  Still large, but not quite as imposing.  The picture below is not too far from the truth!

The nature of the turkeys as chicks was similar to most other fowl.  Cute, a bit skittish, and they are apt to follow you around.  Approximately four months later, however, my naivety was revealed as they reached full size for the most part.  I stared in amazement day to day at how large and fat they were getting.  If you've ever been to a "Medieval Festival" and seen the big turkey legs they sell, I immediately started staring at our turkeys' legs and comparing their size to the size of the drumsticks sold at those types of festivals -- the size was comparable.

Let me get back to the processing of this turkey.

I decided to eat the large turkey because, frankly, he ate/drank more than the ladies, he was a bit rude, and I just didn't like him.  That's the truth.  Not to mention, we want to eat the eggs and not worry about them being fertilized.  I slated him for Thanksgiving dinner.  Told my parents, invited my wife to participate in the process from start to finish, and resolved myself to doing this deed.

The problem with self-teaching is you have no real experience.  Logic drove me to conclude that if I had no one to teach me, I had to do research to familiarize myself with the task at hand and then jump in feet first and figure it out as I went.  I understood there would be mistakes, but again -- how else can one learn such things if there's no one to show you first hand?  I recommend this methodology.  Not only does it give you a gritty, in your face and therefore more memorable experience, but with no one telling you how to do it, you are thinking in an open-ended manner adapting intuition...not doing something because that's how the instructor tells you to do it (which may not be the best way).

Although I wanted the full bird for Thanksgiving, there were two problems.  #1:  The bird was so large it would not have fit in the oven.  #2:  Gutting a bird is harder and more involved than fileting.  I opted to filet the bird after watching this video:

...and the above video is precisely what I did.  First things first, though.  You do have to kill the bird.  I've seen lots of methods for this, too, but based on the size of the bird I was not about to try and catch and subdue it, stick its head in an upsidedown traffic cone and slit its neck.  I considered a katana and a machete, which I may try in the future, but I feared it would not be sharp enough.  In the end, I opted for a 12 gauge with #8 bird/target load.  I let Tom free range for about 5 minutes and have a nice last meal, then I shot him in the back of the head.  It was a clean shot and after a couple of somersaults he lay still.  I quickly dragged him to the chopping block I had waiting and removed his head with the machete.

I've hunted rabbit and squirrel before, but hadn't done that in years so this was the first life I've taken in a while.  Can't say that I liked it, but I viewed this as a task I had to accomplish for my own development.  I'm still ascertaining if there is a better way to kill a turkey.  Chickens can be managed with a knife, but turkeys are so freaking large I'd have to have someone show me how its done before I decide to engage them in one-on-one hand-to-hand combat just to subdue them.

With the turkey decapitated, I literally mimicked the video I posted above and no surprise, it went pretty much just as you see in the video.

My thoughts in retrospect have me wanting to gut the bird and roast it whole next time.  The drum sticks were large and I cooked them in the crockpot, turned them into a "pulled pork" type BBQ turkey -- they were quite tasty.  The breast meat was two large "steaks" which we baked, also good.  However, you're missing so much meat when you go this route.  Fileting, as shown in the video, is quick and easy and definitely renders good meat, but there is so much meat left on the bones that it seems too wasteful for this creature to give its life for our own.

Next time I'll be attempting to gut the bird and utilize as much of the meat as possible.