Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Main Course Had an Unhappy Face by Ariel Kaminer -

She was a beautiful bird, a Bourbon Red turkey whose rich brown feathers were flecked with white, and she had spent her days roaming free around an organic farm that overlooked the Hudson River. But as I stood watching her, she did not seem happy. Instead, with her almond eyes downcast, her subdued manner suggested a kind of forbearance.

Perhaps she sensed I was not there to make friends. In truth, I was there to kill her.
We were standing in Madani Halal, a family-run slaughterhouse in Ozone Park, Queens, that follows Islamic dietary strictures. Many of the small New York State farms that bring their livestock there are drawn, however, by something more basic: the slaughterhouse’s commitment to minimizing the animals’ discomfort.
Its staff is also committed to the idea that people should know what they are eating, which is why Madani, along with a small but significant number of farms, allows customers to choose their animals, to witness their slaughter and even, for those so inclined, to wield the sharpened knife. It’s all part of the broader cultural effort to escape the climate-controlled, linoleum-lined artificiality of supermarket shopping, in which meat magically appears all ready for your oven and animals are characters in children’s storybooks.
Still, there’s a big difference between shopping at a greenmarket and actually dragging a blade across the throat of a living creature.
Out of view of the other birds (so as not to scare them), Imran Uddin, the guy to see at Madani Halal, turned my turkey upside down and placed her, head first, in one of the inverted cones that lined a long stainless-steel table. She seemed calm. I was scared. Scared that I would fail — that at the moment of truth I would hesitate, and thereby hurt the bird, and scared that I would succeed and end up with blood on my hands, literally and figuratively. So I asked Mr. Uddin to hold the knife with me.
Taking the turkey’s head with his other hand, he pronounced, “Bismillah Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “In the name of Allah the great.” Then, in one swift movement, we cut her throat.
The bird’s body went slack, and her head — still attached — sank slowly into the blood-lined tray beneath. After a few moments, she roused again for a quick bout of flapping, but at last came to rest, head curled to one side, wings tucked around herself, and a single foot pointing straight up in the air.
Stepping out of the slaughterhouse and squinting at the light, I didn’t feel brave. I didn’t feel idealistic. I felt crummy.
That feeling is a modern carnivore’s ultimate luxury, a measure of how much distance lies between us and our food sources, and how much comfort we take from it. Slaughtering a turkey felt shocking to me, but for most human beings it would have been routine; if you want meat, you kill it, end of story.
Stone and Thistle Farm, in upstate New York, is another place that encourages people to get involved with the slaughtering process. Every year before Thanksgiving, said Denise Warren, one half of the husband-and-wife team that runs the farm, people come up to help, and no one is allowed to play the role of innocent bystander.
Ms. Warren said the motivations vary: people trying to work their way to a turkey they could not otherwise afford, vegetarians looking to test their beliefs and some drawn by the hearty farm table lunches she serves. “I think they get the true experience that we’ve lost,” she says, “that Thanksgiving used to be a celebration of our harvest.”
Stone and Thistle charges $3.75 per pound for its turkeys, the standard broadbreasted whites and bronzes.
For my Bourbon Red, a heritage breed, I paid $7 a pound and hauled it home on the subway in a black plastic bag. And then what? The only turkeys I had ever cooked were Schwarzeneggerian giants, their exaggerated pectorals bursting forth from their plastic wrapping. This heritage bird, however, was eight pounds, a mere starling by comparison. No recipe I found was of any use. So I contacted the next of kin — Hart Perry, the farmer who raised her at Southwood farm, outside Hudson, N.Y.
He seemed untroubled at the thought of an amateur having ended the bird’s life, and he was resolute on the best way to cook her. “We heritage Bourbon Reds are very tasty,” he wrote in an e-mail, slipping into character, “and require no seasoning since that would interfere with our inherent deliciousness. Just salt and pepper.” Against the advice of two chefs, I did as he said, setting the oven to 350 degrees; it was the most flavorful turkey I had ever had.
For those carnivores who are truly at one with the world, killing your own meat might feel almost like a spiritual act, a way to participate in every step of the life cycle. That’s not how it went for me. I found it upsetting and, on some very basic level, gross.
I won’t be doing it every time I need a chicken to roast. But it is a strong corrective to dislocation and alienation of our industrial food system, a chance for once to understand what we are eating and where it came from.
Whatever the time of year, that chance is a reason to give thanks.