Raising Truly Fresh Turkey

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In one rural Colorado town, if you want your Thanksgiving bird fresh you go to Karla Tschoepe. She's well past the age most people retire to the porch, but Tschoepe still raises and slaughters chickens and turkeys. We visit her at her backyard operation's busiest time of the year.


This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. Well, if you're like me, you went to your local supermarket to pick up your turkey. I have no idea where that turkey came from. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure it didn't come from the place in Colorado producer Adam Burke went to visit.

ADAM BURKE: Karla Tschoepe has a theory about raising turkeys. It's a theory she's been working on for about 40 years.

Ms. KARLA TSCHOEPE (Rancher, Colorado): Let those birds get out on the pasture. Let the sun shine on them. Let them eat bugs.

BURKE: In case you didn't know, commercially-produced turkeys don't get much in the way of bugs or sunshine.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: Commercially-grown, they have them in these houses where they're just standing toe to toe. So, all they do is get a drink of water and a bite of food.

BURKE: Now, if you want one of Tshoepe's turkeys for Thanksgiving, you need to get in line and get on her list in April. That's how good her turkeys are.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: They're kind of sweet, and they're tender. They have a good flavor.

BURKE: Tschope raises chickens and cows and lambs, too. Her organic farm in western Colorado is a jumble of barns and fenced pastures and work sheds. It's kind of a local hub. She's met a number of newcomers over the years who raise animals for meat. But when it's killing time, some just can't deal with the idea of it, so they go visit Karla.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: They don't stay around and watch me kill too much. They drop them off and say, oh, these are my pets; I can't kill them and off they go. I say, well, that's fine. I'll give them back to you in a package.

(Soundbite of turkeys gobbling)

Ms. TSCHOEPE: We farmers and ranchers do what we do. We raise the animals. We feed them. We take good care of them. We slaughter them. We can't get emotional about it. I mean, it just has to be done, or you're not going to eat.

BURKE: On a recent morning, a dozen turkeys huddle together in Tschoepe's fenced-in pickup truck. The large white birds seem nervous, but can you blame theme? It takes about seven minutes or so for a turkey to go from live bird to oven-ready meat. First, they cut the jugular vein so that the blood drains out of the muscles.

I'll spare you the gory details, but the bird is dead within a few minutes. Minus the head and feet, the turkey goes into a basin of scalding water to loosen the feathers, then into the plucking machine. And when it arrives on a stainless steel counter in front of Lynne Perzo(ph), the bird already looks a lot like the naked plucked carcass you're familiar with. Perzo reaches deep into the body cavity of the bird, where all the internal organs are.

Ms. LYNNE PERZO: They're all attached to the inside of the turkey with ligaments and stuff, and I go in, and I just loosen those up.

BURKE: And then, I get to put my freshly-washed hand inside.

Ms. PERZO: Now, do you feel the rib cage?

BURKE: Oh, yeah.

Ms. PERZO: See, and I've already scooped the lungs out.

BURKE: Yes, you have. Wow, it's warm.

Ms. PERZO: Yeah, it's warm.

BURKE: It's really warm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: After that, the surprises just keep coming. Did you know, for example, that turkeys only have one kidney? Yup

Ms. PERZO: This is the liver. This is the heart. That green thing is the gall bladder. This big thing right here is the gizzard.

BURKE: Perzo passes the gizzard over to Karla Tschoepe, who slices it open with a knife. Little rocks start tumbling out.

It's amazing the number of rocks that were in there.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: Oh, yeah, that's what it takes for them to digest their food. If they don't have rocks in there, they're in bad doo doo. That's why it's really nice to run them outside on pasture because they pick up all kinds of good things.

BURKE: And some not so good things.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: Oh, they'll eat anything. They'll eat a nail or anything else. And so, this over here is a collection of stuff we've taken out of the gizzards. See there? Something that looks like sod, or I don't know what it is. I don't know what this is. Is that an old button?

BURKE: These are big rocks.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: I know, but that's what - we took a piece of an innertube out of one one time.

BURKE: Mixed into that little pile of treasure are pieces of colored glass that look like they had have been washing around in the ocean, tumbled smooth inside a turkey gizzard.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: So then we got the idea to make art out of them, which we called giz art.

BURKE: Giz art, eh? Who would have ever thought that the life of a chicken and turkey rancher could have so many surprises? But Tschoepe has at it a while, and she's seen a lot of things.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: I bought this place in 1969, and I have been doing chickens ever since. Didn't have a good processing place. We were hanging them on a clothesline, and it's taken me all of these years to get this good a processing plant together.

BURKE: It's hard work. Tschoepe has threatened to call it quits a number of times. And each year, she teaches a few more people how to slaughter and process livestock in hopes of handing things off to a new generation.

Ms. TSCHOEPE: I'm 74 years old, and I'd kind of like to slow down a little. I don't want to be doing chickens for everybody in the world. So I'm trying to teach these younger ones how to do it. And they've got to take over. The torch has got to pass.

BURKE: But tomorrow's Thanksgiving. So Tschoepe will have to put down that torch for now. It'll be time to pass the turkey, and that takes both hands, even for a strong old broad like Karla Tschoepe. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

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