Northern Michigan: Jaunty Bourbon Red turkeys peck gravel from the driveway. Toulouse geese, fattened from summer pasturing and premium grain, lunge and waddle unaware. A dozen Pekin ducks paddle around the pond in clownish formations. Chef Andrew Herman has raised these birds from fledgling chicks, woken too early to their clucks and caterwauls and watched them grow big enough to defecate on the hood of his Audi.

He smiles at this October day of reckoning implied by huge stock pots huffing steam into the crisp morning and honed knives laid out on tables in his garage. He thinks of a quiet yard, of confit and foie gras and a farm-to-table distance measured in footsteps. Andrew Herman pulls the cork from a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon, pours it into ceramic shot glasses and coffee mugs and raises a toast of respect to both his birds and his brother chefs before tucking a turkey under his arm and heading straight for the harvesting cones. Game on.

For most of us our connection to the animals we eat occurs at the sterile, shrink-wrapped end of a supply chain that begins in a factory-sized coop or feed lot and ends in a butcher shop or grocery store meat department—trimmed, trussed and fairly bloodless. We have busy 21st-century lives full of social media and suburban anti-livestock ordinances and so forego a personal connection to our pork chops. Andrew Herman doesn’t. In fact he spent the morning chasing his future Berkshire breakfast sausage back into its pen.

After completing coursework at the Culinary Institute of America and cutting his haute cuisine incisors in the Michelin-starred kitchens of New York City’s Charlie Palmer group, Andrew, a Lake Leelanau native, left the city for a life of cooking close to the earth in Northwest Michigan. He bought a small Kalkaska farm in 2010, took a job at Lulu’s Bistro in Bellaire and, with visions of pastoral self-reliance, ordered a mix of 30 expensive heritage breed turkey, goose and duck chicks from the renowned Murray McMurray hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. That initial box of fluffy, fist-sized hatchlings was the impetus for Andrew’s sometimes-frustrating feathered learning curve that culminates in this afternoon’s culling.

Though fond of the resilience and clownish antics of his fowl, Andrew is quick to point out that his perspective on subsistence farming is hard won. “There was nothing romantic about raising these birds,” he says. “It’s been economically disastrous, and I spent most of my time cleaning up their poop. But I did it to get familiar with my food source and understand the time and effort required to raise an animal and get it into a kitchen.” Beside the small pond in his front yard, Herman built a shelter for the birds to roost in, but otherwise raised them completely free-range, providing organic grain as a supplement to the natural forage found on his property.

Enticed by the allure of Andrew’s oxtail posole soup, good bourbon, cold beer and a little old-fashioned sacrificial fellowship, others from the regional food realm have gathered here too. Lulu’s Bistro chef de cuisine, Henry Bisson, Siren Hall chefs Cliff Wilson and Jim Morrison and Great Lakes Culinary Institute Instructor, Chef Bob Rodriguez will all help make Andrew’s feathered flock fit for the roasting pan. After the toast and a traditional invocation of thanks, the chefs harvest the birds and bleed them out in stainless steel cones, a traditional method that is quick and calming to the animal. Having studied animal processing at small farms in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, Chef Bob Rodriguez speaks to the philosophy behind the method. “Since these animals are giving themselves up for us, we owe them our gratitude and as quick, clean, stress-free and humane a death as possible.”

Festooned with pinfeathers and spattered blood, the gathered crew of foodies takes turns at the feathering pots, dipping, plucking and eviscerating, forging an intimacy with what they will later eat. “As chefs we’re typically stuck in the kitchen and watch our product arrive through the back door,” Andrew explains. “This is a chance to get our hands dirty and participate in another part of the process.”

Almost nothing is wasted as the butchering gets underway. Goose livers are washed and submerged in saltwater baths for future foie gras. Duck leg quarters are trimmed and the fat is sanctioned for confit. Assorted necks, wings and carcasses will be roasted and mingled with mirepoix for savory stocks to build this winter’s soups and sauces.

With Thanksgiving looming, Andrew sends everyone home with a turkey from his yard-bird bounty, and the chefs riff on the relative merits of brining and bird roasting. “You’ve never eaten turkey until you’ve had a heritage bird,” Andrew says. Though spirited and sometimes aggressive, old time breeds like the Red Bourbon are leaner and darker than their factory-farmed cousins and offer more depth of flavor. “They’re a total pain in the ass but they taste really good,” Herman confirms.

As awareness of small, localized agriculture builds and more chefs embrace farm-to-fork philosophies that encourage seasonal, sustainable meat and produce, American food culture is being reborn from its roots. Some of us will support these chefs and their movement by eating in their dining rooms. Some of us will find our way to farm markets and CSA’s, and some of us, like Andrew Herman, will get our hands dirty and commit to Toulouse geese begging to be fed on a cold dawn or hairy Berkshire hogs running amok in the yard. By shortening the supply chain we may live longer, or maybe not, but we will surely empower a future of small farms and good food right here in the North.

Bringing Home the Bird

Nothing tastes better than a heritage bird that’s been grazing au naturel. Visit the following local farms to source premium pastured poultry for a fall feast.

Baker’s Green Acres

1579 Brinks Road, Marion 231.825.0293

You’ll find Baker’s delicious brand of bird on a bevy of local menus. Natural, pastured, free-range and freaky good.

Cook Family Farm

4282 Hayes Tower Road, Gaylord 989.731.1332

Grass-fed and free of medications, the first-rate birds of the Cook Family are sold whole or cut at local farm markets and at their farm store in Gaylord.

Duerksen Turkey Farm

7241 M-66, Mancelona 231.587.8267

In its third generation, the Duerksen turkey dynasty prides itself on rearing pasture-raised, unmedicated turkeys to grace your Thanksgiving table.

This article was first published in October 2012 Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Click here to order your copy!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski