One sunny day in May a few years ago, two roommates and I drove out to a farm in the country to pick up a couple of three-week-old turkey poults. The farmer raised her eyebrows when we told her that we planned to keep them in our urban neighborhood in Berkeley, California. But we assured her that our turkeys would have a good life, and she relinquished the apple-size birds to us. They chirped plaintively throughout the entire hour and a half of our drive home.
The farmer was probably right to worry. None of us had ever had any turkey experience, unless you counted the kind that appears on your plate at Thanksgiving. A lifelong city-dweller, I had never spent so much as an afternoon on a farm, let alone raised my own livestock.
But that year, 2011, all of a sudden my friends and neighbors began to talk about farming and food. Michael Pollan's influential book The Omnivore's Dilemma had come out a few years earlier, and more recently, journalist and farmer Novella Carpenter had written her book Farm City about raising turkeys, goats, and even pigs in one of Oakland's grittiest neighborhoods.
On my block, chicken coops sprouted like toadstools overnight. Hipsters began haunting the farmers markets, flirting with each other over baskets of kale and collard greens. The poor butcher at the meat stall couldn't get a moment's peace, so surrounded was he by swooning girls. My friends and I signed up for weekly boxes of farm produce, which resulted in acrobatic feats of menu planning. For a while, if I typed "too much" into Google on my laptop, it automatically filled in "kohlrabi."
It didn't take long for our turkeys to get used to their new life in Berkeley. Until they were big enough to live outside, we kept them in our living room. There is a reason that people don't typically keep poultry in their living rooms: The birds poop everywhere and make your house smell awful. But what our turkeys lacked in personal hygiene they more than made up for with charm. In the evenings, they followed my two roommates and me from room to room, skittering along in an adorable half-flying, half-scurrying fashion. We taught them to fly from one couch to another. If I curled up in a chair to read a book, the birds would eventually arrange themselves on my lap and fall asleep. They looked like miniature dinosaurs.
When they were ready for an outdoor home, our across-the-street neighbors, a carpenter and a landscaper, built an impressive and spacious pen for the turkeys in their yard. I came over every morning with treats for the birds: raisins, nuts, and canned tuna for extra protein. They developed a particular taste for Trader Joe's arugula, which they could spot before I even took it out of the bag. They flapped their wings and nipped at me in anticipation. Both birds turned out to be hens — lucky for us and our neighbors, since male birds would have made a lot more noise.
Despite their bohemian upbringing, our turkeys thrived. By November they were 15 pounds each, big enough to feed a crowd. As Thanksgiving approached, we all agreed that we wanted to do right by these amazing creatures.
When we pictured killing our turkeys, we envisioned a somber and beautiful ceremony honoring the lives of the two birds we had raised since they were small enough to fit in the palms of our hands. We had researched the most humane way to end their lives — by hanging them upside down in a cone and slitting their jugular vein with a single fast and merciful cut. I had picked out a luminous W. S. Merwin poem for the occasion. There was talk of burning sage.
But on the afternoon when we assembled to slaughter the first of the two turkeys, something happened that we hadn't accounted for: Kids started showing up. Word had spread in our neighborhood that something was going to be killed, and everyone wanted to be there to watch the spectacle.
Bikes were ditched in front of our neighbors' house. John, a 7-year-old I had met a few times, wandered into the yard. He'd heard that the killing was imminent, and he had a lot of questions.
"Did they ever bite you?" he wanted to know. "Did you bleed? Is that why you're killing them?"
"When are you gonna do it?" asked another kid on a scooter.
"Oooh, don't let him bite me, I'm gonna get him!" squealed another, hustling away from the turkey, who had found some onion greens to nibble on. A few kids horsed around by the vegetable bed. There was a lot of yelling.
"What do we do?" I hissed at my friend. The problem was not just that the kids were spoiling our plans for a solemn ceremony; we also weren't sure about the ethical propriety of letting a bunch of kids witness us killing an animal.
One little girl of about 12 shyly sidled up to me as I was trying to keep the turkey calm. There was something touching about watching the kids take it all in. Morbid curiosity was surely part of the draw ("This is gonna be sick!"). But there was reverence too.
"Those feathers are pretty," said the girl. "What do they feel like?"
"They're soft," I said. "You want to touch them?"
She gingerly reached out and patted the turkey. "They are soft."
We watched as my carpenter neighbor mounted a traffic cone onto an old spiraling iron railing — he had found it at a junkyard — and placed a metal pot below to catch the blood. He caught the bird and lowered her into the cone headfirst. I didn't observe the actual slitting of her throat; I was busy whisking the other turkey away so she wouldn't see. (Understandably, birds can become stressed out by witnessing the slaughter of their own.)
By the time I got back, blood was draining out of the cone and into the pot. John, the curious 7-year-old, came up close to have a look.
"What if the cops come?" he said.
"This isn't illegal, duh!" said an older kid, rolling his eyes.
"Well, what if it was a person?"
"You are so stupid. Why you gotta be so dumb?" Lots of giggles.
"Oooh, I can see chunks in there," said John, peering into the pot of blood. "That is so nasty!" I marveled at how none of the kids seemed squeamish. They didn't shrink away from the goriest of details.
Once the bird had bled out, the kids took off on their scooters and bikes.
When we killed the other turkey a few days later, it was just us grown-ups. I read my W. S. Merwin poem. Everyone was quiet and respectful. But I found myself missing the kids' curiosity and energy.
Our Thanksgiving celebration was incredible. The upstairs neighbor, a chef, wrapped one of the turkeys in a layer of bacon, followed by a layer of cheesecloth, and finally a layer of peanut butter. He roasted the whole thing. We were skeptical — especially of the peanut butter part. But when he took the bird out of the oven, everyone agreed it was the most delicious Thanksgiving turkey they'd ever had. I like to attribute this success to the months of careful nurturing and frequent arugula treats rather than the preparation, but in truth it was probably a combination of the two. Our across-the-street neighbors ate the other turkey for their Thanksgiving (sans peanut butter), and they said it turned out delicious as well. I wished the neighborhood kids could have been there to share the meal with us.
A few weeks after Thanksgiving, I ran into John on my way home from work.
"You gonna get another turkey?" he asked hopefully.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe next year."
John nodded thoughtfully and rode off on his bike.
Kiera Butler is a senior editor at Mother Jones and the author of Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever. At Mother Jones, Kiera writes and edits stories about the environment, nutrition, health, and agriculture, including her award-winning column, Econundrums. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Wired, Orion, and Pop-Up Magazine.
To learn more about Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever, click here.