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!
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’ magazines at the time. 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”?
AS FARM FOWL WOULD HAVE BEEN HAND FED AND REARED FROM THE DAY THEY WERE HATCHED, KILLING THEM WAS NOT PLEASANT
Ardee - a good market town for a turkey in days gone by