November 28, 2011

Warning: After Butchering 98 Turkeys, You May Need Gumbo and Paper Christmas Trees

Let me start by telling you that over the last week, we killed and processed 98 turkeys, delivered them across the state (Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and then back to Great Falls for those who missed the first pick up), hosted the 12 people it took to get the dirty job done, cooked Thanksgiving dinner, shot and processed a deer, went to a birthday party, had two final dinner guests on Saturday and then collapsed in a catatonic heap yesterday.

So, forgive my absence here as of late, as well as the reliance on somewhat blurry photography. It was all really that fuzzy. The camera doesn't lie, you know.

It started early the Saturday before Thanksgiving when the turkeys met their maker. People started showing up around 8 a.m. to get the job done. We had lots of help from many, many cool people. It never ceases to amaze me that people will come this far, in this kind of weather, to do what can only be described as terrible work. But they do. And they seem to have fun, no less. There's an unmistakeable camaraderie surrounding the whole thing.

From once-strangers to dear friends, the people who help us do this work are the true heroes, in my mind. By the end of it all, we feel closer to our food, to our community and to each other. There's just something about it.

After all the plucking and scalding and eating and playing music and sleeping on floors was done, our volunteers went home and we loaded said turkeys, now plucked and in pretty little bags into a refrigerated trailer and traversed the state, delivering 1,300 pounds of Thanksgiving.

Jacob tends to channel all of his stress into the actual slaughter of the birds, the equipment, the weather, the process, the help. The days before turkey slaughter, he's the one who's nearly crippled with stress. But, that's the fun part for me -- the hosting, the helping, the company. Also, it's not my thing. Jacob has it handled, and that allows me to relax a little. (By the way, if you'd like to watch a (somewhat graphic) multimedia project on the subject, check out this piece from our very talented and dear friend Anne Medley, from the 2009 slaughter.)

The delivery, on the other hand, is my thing and my nightmare. I have a handy spreadsheet that helps, but our customer list is always a moving target and I'm in charge of being friendly and doing math at the same time. I'm really good at one of those things, but terrible at the other, and for some reason, combining them makes my head inch toward explosion.

Then, there's this question of how many turkeys we have to sell. We have 98 turkeys and most are spoken for, so it's a tight margin. My worst fear is running out of turkeys and ruining someone's Thanksgiving because we can't get them a bird.

Then, people who are on the list don't show and people who are not on the list do show and my numbers get jumbled and I start to panic.

This year, because I erred so far on the side of caution that would keep us from overselling, we ended up coming home with about 10 extra turkeys. Which is fine -- they just went in the freezer for Christmas sales -- but two things: 1) We really need the money and 2) I'm still having nightmares that someone out there was expecting or wanting one of our turkeys and didn't get one because either we couldn't find them or they couldn't find us.

During the delivery, I ended up in a flood of phone calls and text messages, Facebook notes and emails, feeling like a bit of a stalker by the end of it all. I actually called one customer at work because I couldn't get her otherwise, and told her receptionist that it was urgent that she call her turkey farmer.

That's how crazy I get about all of this.

So, on Thanksgiving, we cooked one of our own small turkeys and laid low. We had offers to go other places, but we wanted a quiet day and we really wanted to actually eat the fruits of our labor. We needed a reminder of how worth it they are -- for us and all the work we put into them, and for our customers, who not only pay a premium price, but who also are patient with the process it takes to get the birds to them.

It takes real commitment sometimes to eat locally. It would be so much easier and cheaper to go to the store and buy up a turkey of your choosing, walk it to the counter and check out. Easy, peasy. But, not as tasty, or as fun, I hope.

These birds really are worth it.

I won't go so far as giving this guy a name or showing you his papers (hilarity here, by the way), but I know he was raised humanely, killed humanely, ate great food and lived his life out of doors. And, I know he was a tasty, tasty bird.

We also used up one of our Thanksgiving vegetable shares for our meal and the winter squash made this here delightful pie. (Recipe here.)

I broke our hand mixer a few weeks ago, so Jacob had to whip the cream by hand. It took much longer than he expected (but about as long as I expected, which I told him, of course.)

My Dad came over for the meal and brought his own homegrown scalloped potatoes and ham and, more importantly, played with his granddaughter while her Mama cooked.

Friday, Jacob went hunting and got the aforementioned deer, while Willa and I stayed home, trying to get back into somewhat of a nap schedule (impossible) and getting Christmas going in the house.

We don't have many Christmas decorations and haven't really ever decorated since we married and moved to Conrad. The first year we were here, we spent the holiday in Salt Lake City where my Dad was in the burn unit at the University of Utah, recovering from a pretty traumatic farm accident that ended up in him losing his leg. (I did, however, come home from Salt Lake after one of my stays with Dad to find that Jacob had put up Christmas lights to cheer me up. I could have kissed him.) The second year, we'd just had Willa and I was too busy figuring out how to take care of a newborn to pay much attention to decking any halls.

But this year, I must have the spirit in me or something because on Friday, I got all crafty up in here.

It's amazing what a little red yarn, a yard full of pine cones and a hot glue gun can do.

And then, looking at the insane pile of magazines we regularly accumulate, I got a flash of inspiration from my childhood, vaguely remembering making Christmas trees out of a Reader's Digest, maybe in 4th, or 5th grade?

I looked it up and of course, Martha had a full tutorial.

It became an obsession for me, folding these little trees, one I even partook in while we had company over for dinner.

But just look at these things!

They're part modern/recycled decor, part nostalgia for 4th grade, part sparkly, lovely, holiday cheer. They take impossibly long to make, but I can't seem to stop now.

Someone told me I should just be watching TV on the couch after the season we'd just had. And believe me, I tried. But, this craftiness is way better. It's an inertia thing. After all that doing, doing, doing, it seemed impossible to just stop and sit down. I needed something active and relaxing.

Enter the magazine trees (and the Pandora Ella Fitzgerald holiday station.) Willa and I have been folding and singing, folding and singing, pretty much nonstop since Friday.

And, I think we're starting to inch back to normal because of it.


Leftover Turkey Gumbo

I sometimes cook up a turkey just so we can have gumbo the next day.

The basic recipe here is from Emeril, but I've modified based on other recipes and the input of a good friend who's a southern cooking phenom.

It's taken me awhile to get this down and it turns out differently everytime -- which I sort of dig. There's a certain terroir to it, a taste of place, as it were. The final product depends on so many variables -- the  kind of bird you have, what you seasoned the turkey or the broth with, whether you have white wine or red (or sometimes, I sub beer), what kind of sausage you have, etc.

It also depends, big time, on the roux.

Making the roux can be way time consuming, but it's so worth it. And, the time spent slaving over a hot stove makes this meal feel special, somehow. (Best praise ever: "You got a good scald on this.")

And, for goodness sakes, how can you go wrong when you start a recipe by frying flour?

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell peppers
1 small can tomato paste
2 cups frozen okra
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup worchestershire sauce
dash cayenne (to taste)
1 pound smoked sausage, such as andouille or kiebasa, cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices
3 bay leaves
6 cups turkey stock (made by submerging turkey carcass in stock pot in water and boiling for two or so hours)
leftover turkey meat, about 3 to 4 cups
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onions

In a Dutch oven, over medium heat, combine the oil and flour and stirring slowly and constantly for 20 to 25 minutes, make a dark brown roux, the color of chocolate. Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers and continue to stir for 4-5 minutes, or until wilted. Add tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the sausage and bay leaves. Continue to stir for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the stock, worchestershire and white wine. Stir until the roux mixture and stock are well combined. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Add the turkey and the okra. Simmer for 2 hours. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface. Remove from the heat . Stir in the parsley and green onions. Remove the bay leaves and serve in deep bowls with rice.


  1. Craft, Courtney! Craft like the wind!!
    And for the record, we had to clear out our /entire/ freezer to make room the Golden Triangle Fatso you so lovingly reared, killed, plucked and delivered to Helena for us.
    We're eating him for Christmas, but he already looks delicious.

  2. We should all be so lucky/important as to receive an "urgent" call from our turkey farmer.

  3. Sign us up for a 2012 bird, Courtney. Loved your post.

  4. Great post. Great birds. Ours was the most delicious, loved bird ever served by me (I think the last one was last Thanksgiving, but still.) Thanks for all your hard work, Cowgills. In DC, my old paper put on a big annual event called Crafty Bastards. I think you're inching toward a booth.

  5. Now you've got me folding magazine Christmas trees. It's strangely therapeutic, isn't it?

    Congratulations on your turkeys!



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