Pluck­ing the turkey

JIM COM­MINS RE­CALLS THE DAYS WHEN THE CHRIST­MAS ‘GOBBLER’ WAS BOUGHT IN THE HIS­TORIC MAR­KET SQUARE IN ARDEE - AND THEN THE HUNT BE­GAN FOR A PLUCKER!

Drogheda Independent - - NEWS -

NOWA­DAYS, there is no nov­elty in hav­ing turkey for din­ner, lunch or brunch. The bird either whole or in parts, cooked or un­cooked, is eas­ily ob­tain­able in gro­cers, butch­ers and su­per­mar­kets. Restau­rant menus would not be com­plete if turkey, in one form or an­other, was not listed. As for carver­ies, I have yet to come across one that did not have a roast turkey ready to be sliced at the serv­ing counter.

Be­fore the ad­vent of en­ter­prises that mass pro­duced thou­sands of the birds in enor­mous sheds, some farm­ers’ wives bred and reared small flocks of a dozen or so for the Christ­mas mar­ket.

I re­call the time in the mid- for­ties in mid- Novem­ber when the Amer­i­can Bronze birds that for seven months had the free­dom of the farm­yard and a nearby green field be­ing taken and put in a shed that was in semi-dark­ness.

The floor of the shed was lit­tered with wood shav­ings ob­tained from Thorne’s chair fac­tory in Ardee and chaff. Whereas up un­til then they were fed on din­ner left­overs, boiled spuds and fist­fuls of oats they were now given a spe­cial meal mix­ture.

The “gob­blers” as the birds were called ap­peared to be con­tented enough in their sur­round­ings although the cocks had less space to strut around.

On the 8th of De­cem­ber they usu­ally got dou­ble ra­tions. This was be­cause it was a Church Feast Day and the day on which coun­try folk headed for the city to pur­chase Santa Claus presents for chil­dren and gifts for fam­ily and friends.

I shall never for­get the first one I had to pluck. I was about six­teen years of age at the time and was given a demon­stra­tion of how it was done by my el­dest brother. It was a chal­leng­ing task, given by a mas­ter pheas­ant plucker.

It was his prac­tice on Sun­day morn­ings in the win­ter­time af­ter hand milking the cows and at­tend­ing an early morn­ing Mass to head off with his shot gun seek­ing pheas­ants, par­tridges and pi­geons. Recipes for pi­geon pies fre­quently ap­peared in women’s’

AS FARM FOWL WOULD HAVE BEEN HAND FED AND REARED FROM THE DAYTHEYWERE HATCHED, KILLING THEMWASNOT PLEAS­ANT

mag­a­zines at the time­time.

The odd bagged pheas­ant was home cooked and divvied out in minute por­tions. It’s taste, tex­ture and colour was quiet dif­fer­ent to that of cooked chicken. Chick­ens or hens, whether roasted, boiled or in stews would have been the most pop­u­lar meat at the time.

As farm fowl would have been hand fed and reared from the day they were hatched, killing them was not easy nor pleas­ant and was done with great re­luc­tance. Whilst a chicken was killed by wring­ing it’s neck, a turkey on the other hand was a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion.

It was done by plac­ing the bird’s head un­der the han­dle of a yard brush ly­ing flat on the ground and pulling the body up­wards with a quick Such a sight was not eas­ily for­got­ten. This method how­ever, was thought to be more hu­mane than cut­ting it’s throat with a ser­rated knife.

Ini­tially only two birds were killed and on one I was shown how to pull off the feath­ers. The large wing and tail could be plucked in hand­fuls whilst ex­tra care had to be taken when pluck­ing the fleshy parts of the body as the skin was eas­ily torn. Small pin feath­ers had to be ex­tracted with a pair of pli­ers. Bruised or dam­aged birds would be worth less. It was es­sen­tial that the tur­keys were plucked as soon as pos­si­ble af­ter they were killed.

That first ex­pe­ri­ence of mine took place in the hay barn that was en­closed on three sides. For warmth, I wore a well worn over­coat and muf­fler. My legs, cov­ered with hay were tucked be­neath a tar­pau­lin for col­lect­ing loose feath­ers. The win­ters then were not as kind as they are now!

I will never for­get that evening when dur­ing the ses­sion an in­quis­i­tive rat ( prob­a­bly at­tracted by the smell of the dead birds) sniff­ing the air, came and dis­ap­peared un­der the tar­pau­lin.

Legs were swiftly with­drawn from un­der the cover and a yard shovel was used to hit any place where there was move­ment. The rat es­caped. The in­ci­dent helped me to re­mem­ber the story about “Raf­ferty and the three legged rat”. Sin sceal eile.

Lo­cal butch­ers were al­ways in the mar­ket for prime birds. Be­fore be­ing sold it was cus­tom­ary for them to hang the fowl, for two or three days, from hooks at­tached to long iron bars within and out­side their premises.

In Ardee on the fair­days be­fore Christ­mas in the area be­hind the Mar­ket Square where there is a statue of Foster, live tur­keys, geese and chick­ens were sold. For ap­prais­ing their weight a spe­cially con­structed scales was erected. Of­ten­times, buy­ers just bought the fowl as soon as they ar­rived in cribbed carts.

At the end of the day’s work, all the loose feath­ers were col­lected.

The small downy ones were gath­ered for pil­low and cush­ion fill­ings. A cush­ion, al­beit filled with goose feath­ers was once used by mother “Ar dheis De go raibh a hanam dilis” for kneel­ing on be­fore re­tir­ing at night and first thing af­ter get­ting out of bed in the morn­ing.

Be­fore rear­ing tur­keys she bred geese. The grease from roast grease was com­monly used for chapped hands, sore ud­ders of cows, soft­en­ing and pre­serv­ing the leather of boots when Dub­bin was not avail­able and of course roast­ing spuds.

Some of the larger feath­ers when at­tached to a long han­dle gave the ap­pear­ance of a witch’s broom-stick.

It was used to snare cob­webs that were out of reach. More, when tied to­gether made a small hand brush for sweep­ing the floor. Neigh­bours’ chil­dren of­ten called to col­lect some, to make In­dian head dresses.

Catch­ing a chill was one of the side ef­fects of the job.

The in­hala­tion of motes from the birds’ down could bring about bouts of sneez­ing and run­ning noses, and bites from mites of­ten caused itch­ing and rashes.

Although the pop­u­lar­ity of hav­ing turkey for the Christ­mas din­ner has not di­min­ished, the goose is grad­u­ally gain­ing ground.

In the past when tur­keys were put in the shed for fat­ten­ing, was their “goose cooked”?

Ardee - a good mar­ket town for a turkey in days gone by

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