Talking turkeys

November 20, 2012

Rick Kogan

You all have Thanksgiving memories—but none of your memories go back to 1895.

On Thanksgiving Day that year the country's first official auto race took place. It was a 55-mile round-trip journey between the South Side and Evanston. Competing were four gasoline-powered cars and two that ran on electricity. The winners were brothers Charles and Frank Duryea in their "buggynaut," a marvel that had three forward speeds. They won $2,000 (a lot of dough at the time) for covering the course in just under eight hours.

One of my memories is tied to North Avenue, near where I grew up in Old Town. There was for many years a live poultry place at North and Wells and that was where the alderman of the 43rd ward, the infamous Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, got the turkeys and ducks that he would dole out to people the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

There are still live poultry stores in the city, a dozen or so, and the owners will tell you more people are interested in fresh birds.

Call me squeamish, but walking into Chicago Live Poultry on Lawrence Avenue. And seeing all sorts of animals—rabbits, pigeons, turkeys, geese, roosters, quail, guinea hens and chickens, lots of chickens—sitting in cages and unknowingly awaiting their inevitable place on someone's dinner table, was almost enough to instantly convert me to vegetarianism. I had entered this store because I had been attracted by its windows, which are covered with colorful paintings of animals, the sort of playful illustrations one might find in a children's book. 

The store had been around for more than 25 years, according to Hibib Alshimary, who started working there as a young man and who is now one of the owners. This, of course, is the shop's busiest season. During this month Chicago Live Poultry prepares and sells some 50 turkeys a week. 

The process by which this is accomplished is not for the fainthearted. But let's not be hypocritical: It is the same process employed, in a more mechanized and automated fashion, by such huge poultry companies as Tyson and Perdue. Which is the more gruesome?

I watched birds being beheaded, plucked and cleaned. He is not at all squeamish. But many people buying birds and rabbits did not want to have their names appear in the paper, lest they, as one customer put it, "have people think that we are cruel or weird." 

"Does it bother me to kill the animals? No way," says Alshimary. "This is a good, fast-growing business." 

So good (the store sells about 450 chickens a week) that he opened another store. 

"People like because it is fresher," he says. "The animals are raised without any chemicals. People who buy here tell their friends and many yuppies come now." 

Wherever I am at Thanksgiving, there will probably be a turkey. And, memories of being in a poultry store nicely faded, I'll probably have some. I just hope it's one I haven't met.