REISTERSTOWN – For many Marylanders, Thanksgiving marks a reunion of family and friends in their Sunday best as they bow their heads over a stuffed, golden, roasted turkey.
At Tom Reynolds’ hideaway farm, turkey is also the focus of a reunion. Except that the turkey is still alive — for a while — family and friends are dressed in rubber aprons covered in turkey blood and the stuffing and roasting come days later.
Saturday marked another year in a nearly two-decade tradition on the farm northwest of Baltimore, where about 30 longtime neighbors, old college buddies and local friends pitch in to help Reynolds process 1,500 farm-fresh turkeys just days before the big Thursday.
The reward? Their own farm-fresh turkey and a hard-to-come-by sweatshirt bearing the words “Gobble Gobble Gobble” on the front and the Reynolds farm logo on the back.
You can only get a sweatshirt if you help out somewhere in the daylong sprint of turkey cutting, plucking, cleaning and icing, unless you’re willing to clean up various turkey discards or cut up and bag turkey hearts and livers for separate sale.
But for longtime participants, some since early childhood, the sweatshirt is just a token compared to the camaraderie they enjoy during what is often a community reunion.
“They’re good friends,” said Lester Ettl, 45, a former classmate of Reynolds at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s a reason to come down and see everyone.”
Work begins before sunrise when the turkeys are gathered in a pen that usually houses steer and pigs, which have been relegated to a temporary spot behind the barn. A small number of the birds are cordoned off in a corner of the pen where they can be more easily handled and hung upside down on a hook attached to a sliding carousel where their necks are cut and their feet clipped.
Strong men do much of the dirty work in this phase, but helping to push the turkeys along the line are a handful of pre-teen boys, who revel in the task. One boy, Lucas Ettl, 14, appears to be the leader of the youths, and he has the turkey-blood saturation to prove it. He is one of several volunteers who cast aside rubber aprons in favor of absorbing the spatter.
It gets to the point where you wonder if he can see through his eyeglasses.
“I wash them off every once in a while,” says Lucas, who is in his fourth year of turkey duty. He pauses, and then turns to shoo away a turkey trying to get an advance look at his fate.
The newly slain turkeys are next dipped in hot water and fed into the plucker, which can be best described as putting a turkey in the spin cycle and having it come out with most, if not all, of its feathers removed. The birds enter a new room and an assembly line of men in yellow rubber aprons, young and old, methodically rinse them, gut them and then clean their insides with a modified vacuum, rinse them again, and then clip their heads with the same pressurized cutting tool used on their feet.
This assembly line resembles no factory. Profanities zing back and forth through the steamy room as empty Budweiser cans pile up in the corner. The spirit of brotherhood is alive and well, though there are a few ladies at a nearby table, cutting up and bagging 1,500 sets of hearts and livers. Their hands remain remarkably smooth.
“The livers are so fatty that they make a good moisturizer,” quips Emily Olson, 21, another longtime Reynolds turkey veteran who answers to “Queenie,” a moniker bestowed upon her by the burly men cutting and emptying turkeys across the room.
Olson, now a senior at Virginia Tech, is used to being one of few women to participate in the turkey run. Various wives, daughters and mothers, meanwhile, are busy preparing a feast that comes at the conclusion of the turkey prep mini-marathon.
The work goes uninterrupted until about 11:30 a.m., when it is discovered that the hot water vat is not hot enough, which means the turkeys are coming out of the plucker with their feathers still attached. A 10-minute rest marks the first break in processing, which has been going straight for four-and-a-half hours. It is met with some relief and just as much disappointment.
“Man, I want to keep going,” says Reynolds, 43.
“We could have been done by noon!” says James Schuster, 19, who has performed turkey duty for 12 years and now lives in Union Bridge.
Schuster was getting ahead of himself: It took two more hours than he predicted for the last bird to get through the line, unlocking the right to a sweatshirt and a turkey.
To Olson, however, the birds may be, uh, overdone.
“By the time Thanksgiving comes around, I’m like, where’s the ham?” said Olson, half-jokingly.
The Reynolds turkey tradition dates back to about 1986, as best as Reynolds can recall, after his father waited in line for several hours to get a fresh turkey from a local market. Annoyed by the long wait, the family declared then and there that they would kill and prepare their own turkeys.
Reynolds’ first run — with just 250 turkeys and a handful of friends — took about the same amount of time it did this year. He said their inexperience with the birds left about 50 unsellable, but over the years they perfected their methods and the loss rate is now marginal.
During the 1990s they peaked at 2,700 birds, with separate runs for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Reynolds has scaled down since then, concerned that the turkeys would overrun other farm interests like horses, steer, pigs, produce and wood shavings that keep him in business the rest of the year.
“You have to work hard to sell that many birds,” he said.
It also got difficult wooing everyone back to the farm for a Christmastime run, Reynolds said, with volunteers often scattered beyond the state lines. The only turkeys that will be available for Christmas are ones not sold for Thanksgiving. But with nearly 1,400 orders placed as of Saturday and an anticipated barrage of last-minute turkey buyers, that doesn’t seem likely.
Besides, it’s no longer so much about selling turkeys as it is about reuniting Reisterstown natives who grew up together but now live apart. Reynolds now finds himself raising prices just to keep demand reasonable, but it never works.
“Every year there’s a guy from Boston who wants to buy every turkey I’ve got,” Reynolds said. “I can’t do that to all my friends.”
– 30 – CNS-11-22-05