Kosher Turkey Adventure
The life of a wine and food professional is often filled with unique experiences, and a recent article in the Georgetown Current lead me to a fascinating day on a small Maryland farm learning about turkeys, kosher turkeys that is ! The article was about Devora Kimelman-Block who began KOL (Kosher Organic-Raised Local – www.kolfoods.com) in order to satisfy the Jewish communities need for humanely raised meats – also known as « eco-kosher » – in the Metro Washington, D.C. area. My interest was a bit different – I am just extremely curious about the kosher process of slaughtering (or if you prefer – harvesting) animals and the reasons these methods came to be. In other words, I had to answer one question for myself – is Kosher slaughter in fact more humane for the animal ? I had to go to find out !
I had only been to one slaughter before at Fauquier’s Finest in Bealeton, Virginia and I witnessed four cows/cattle and two lambs being « processed » over about a four hour period. Although at first I was a bit queasy, the emphasis was that this was in fact a humane abbatoir and that the big slaughterhouses where most of our beef comes from is more like an industrial machine. I was awed by the way the workers treated the animals tenderly before the final moment and how surprisingly much animals jerk and move even as much as 30 minutes after they are dead. I’ve seen the PETA videos, but now I’m convinced that they’re totally misleading – an animal can seem to be alive a good time after it’s heart has completely stopped and consciousness is vanquished, too many Americans are brought up on TV where one gunshot completely stops all movement in a victim – this is simply not true.
OK, back to the Kosher experience. We visited a small farm in Rocky Ridge, Maryland called Groff’s Content (www.groffscontentfarm.com) where Julie Bolton, the owner of the farm, Devora and a Rabbi who was to perform as the freelance shochet who applies all the Kosher rules of humane slaughter as well as carrying a really sharp knife that looks like a straight edged razor ! Our job for this day was to assist in getting the birds ready for their Thanksgiving ultimate destination – as the turkey on most likely a Jewish family’s table.
I had a million questions for the Rabbi and was especially happy when the school boys from a local Yeshiva decided they had had enough after about 15 minutes of plucking feathers. My first interest was to watch and understand the process where the Rabbi slits the turkeys throat – would I pass out, would I get squeamish, turn pale and pass out, or would it be like the animals I saw at Fauquier’s Finest where I felt they were treated well and this is simply what it takes to get delicious meat ? I stood very close to the Rabbi and watched as the turkey farmer held the bird upside down by it’s feet, gingerly put its head through a hole in the chicken wires near the rabbi and the rabbi very efficiently sliced the throat at just the right position and moment. Done..eerily, I felt fine, actually quite peaceful. I asked questions to the rabbi about the meaning of Kosher slaughter and he explained to me many details – for example, if the throat is slit and something like a blade of grass is found in the throat, that bird can not be considered Kosher – the grass may have slowed down the process of death, and that is considered un-Kosher – wow ! The artery to the bird’s brain as well as the food and airpipe of the bird must be slit in one motion, or – you guessed it – it wouldn’t be Kosher. Did the bird seem to be in pain ? Absolutely not, or as the Rabbi said, once the artery is cut, the bird’s brain is not capable of feeling pain, there simply is no way for it to get a message. Does the bird move after the cut ? Yes, in fact, it jerks quite a bit even while the blood is draining out, in fact it shakes for a few minutes.
Our job at this point was pretty simple, but very time consuming – and of course, many people who had RSVP’ed to help didn’t show, there were basically 6 of us doing most of the plucking and cleaning of the animals – we didn’t get to disembowel, this was done by Julie who swore that she couldn’t help grabbing the heart of the bird first, I guess that’s the most difficult part of the bird to pull out first ? It was a pretty cold day and the barn we were in had no heat, so we were lucky and amazed at how warm the birds remained – in fact, it was very pleasant to pull the feathers off because it kept us warm. We had to pluck manually because Kosher chickens must be dry-plucked and most plucking machines use water. Chop off the feet, cut off the head, a few nips and tucks and some detail time on the little feathers and our job was complete – except it took about 6 hours to process all of these birds and my hands began to cramp !
After a long day of mostly plucking feathers, Devora had 28 turkeys that were almost all Kosher – a few didn’t pass the Rabbi’s strict rules including the before mentioned grass stuck in the throat, and one bird simply was internally sick, so that was a no-Kosher-go. A few more interesting Kosher facts – all the birds had to be salted and no blood is allowed to remain in the animals – in fact, the heart of the animal can’t be eaten by Jews who stay Kosher because it still has blood in it – except the Yemenite Jews have a method to remove this blood. There was one strange exception – you can eat the flesh of the birds even if they are never salted if you eat them within three days of slaughter but they must be broiled or cooked over an open fire. A bit of a disappointment because I had considered smoking my turkey over low heat, but that wouldn’t be Kosher – geez, I was really caught up in all the rules !
My final conclusion – is Kosher more humane ? Unfortunately, I have never seen a non-kosher slaughter of a turkey, so it’s impossible for me to say, but after talking intimately about turkeys with the Rabbi for many hours, I began to feel an awesome respect for Orthodox Jews and their customs – OK, I don’t intend to change my ways – I’m a pork and lobster eating Jew – but I now understand why even non-Jews often prefer Kosher products to non-Kosher – our People have thousands of years of time practicing very strict rituals. The only negative of the experience was to realize that the average turkey weighed only a little more than 10 pounds once cleaned and at almost $8 a pound, ultimately I was paying closer to $14-$16 a pound for the actual meat.. having said that, I’m truly looking forward to eating my Kosher turkey and I feel the day plucking and talking with the Rabbi was a sacrifice of time well worth it.
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