"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

13 November 2019


Russell Chatham

Two drake mallards are limp on the kitchen counter. These large birds, just down from Canada, were ambushed near a marsh in southwestern Montana about four in the afternoon one still, bitter, cold December day. Regrettably, there was a third, not now present.

The slough had been staked over the rises a through a stand of cottonwoods.  There I stopped to warm my hands and admire the elegant thirty-year-old pigeon grade Winchester Model 12 I’d just acquired in a trade for a large painting of the Big Sur hills washed in summer light.  An odd juxtaposition of places, moods, and objects.

When the ducks broke from cover, jumping almost straight up and squawking, they fanned out.  The first one went down cleanly.  The second and third, nearly out of range, were cripples that coasted into a flat swampy field covered with a foot of snow.  I found number one right away, mounted in a snowdrift exactly as he’d hit it.  The others were nowhere to be seen. I began to crisscross, finally stepping on one, which somehow burst up into my arms.

The third mallard died beneath the snow, becoming one of those pointless killings thoughtful hunters recall with sadness.  Or maybe he tunneled his way out of Park County into another possibility with only a little lead in his foot, though its doubtful he ever lived to hear Spanish being spoken in the towns beneath him.

Back in the kitchen the transition is being made from wild animal to something to eat.  I am going to treat my new girlfriend to one of those special culinary experiences doors are locked for.  She comes in unexpectedly early, while the birds are still being plucked.  When she sees them she does her version of Eddie Cantor trying to blow up a truck tube, and runs into the bathroom.  I lose heart and consider serving her cat shit while I have roast duck.  But I already knew most people get it wrong.

My father was a sensitive man whose spirit had been utterly broken early on, and he replaced it with a shroud of ennui, which effectively kept life at arm’s length.  His systematic self-denial only faltered when there were ducks for dinner.  Duck was the only food to which he ever really warmed, and in his defense of the quality of duck as dinner, he forbade the serving of it to guests or children, neither of whom could be trusted to appreciate it.  I even think the failure of his marriage was largely due to the fact his wife ‘didn’t think ducks were that good.”

It must have been an inherited characteristic. When I catch trout I normally turn them loose afterward.  And even when I take one home knowing it will be delicious, I’m still far more interested in catching the fish than eating it.  The same with grouse, certainly a delectable bird.  And so it goes with bass, salmon, pheasant.  But when I see a duck, even one of those on a city-park pond that takes bread crumbs out of the palms of old ladies, the desire to kill and eat is nearly Satanic.

All game birds are exquisite on the table, but there are certain fanatics for whom nothing does the job quite so perfectly as a prime wild duck.  Those on the inside often argue darkly over which species is most superb.  Easterners defend the black duck; westerners, the sprig or pintail, Midwesterners, the mallard.  Everywhere, the tiny teal is spoken of in hushed tones.  In the South, the real connoisseur will hear of nothing but the sublime wood duck.

But most people get it wrong, and so you learn not to talk about it.  Raving about how you like to eat duck might bring invitations to dinner from hunters who have freezers of them.  Many of these hunters will be baffled by such enthusiasm because they themselves would “rather have a T-bone.”  You’ll find out why when dinner is served.  The missus will have stuffed the ducks with breadcrumbs and baked them in a 325-degree oven for three hours, creating in the process a classic je ne sais quoi.  Served thus, with some dried out peas, mashed potatoes and a cup of coffee, a date with an icebox full of wet hair would be preferable.

The best way to bail out the evening, aside from very heavy drinking, is to convince the hosts the bird was delicious, and hope they’ll give away the rest of the ducks from their freezer.  Later they will make fun of you as a screwball, but you will have skated off with the raw material for many quasi-orgasmic moments.

I am sitting with my friend Joe in his living room overlooking San Francisco Bay.  I know Joe shares and understands my love affair with the wild duck.  We talk of duck hunting and duck eating.

“Let’s go next door,” he says.  My neighbor is a duck-eating fanatic.”

Next door it is clear that Hal, his new neighbor, doesn’t trust me any more than I trust him. I am sure he uses too cool an oven, over cooks the birds, and makes a disgusting sauce, if any.  He no doubt believes I dredge the birds in flour, chicken-fry the living piss out of them, and dish them up with boiled potatoes.

“How do you fix the?” I ask cautiously.

“Roast them in a hot oven.”

“How hot?”

“Five hundred degrees for about twenty minutes.”

“Jesus, that’s right!  Use sauce?”

“Yep.”  Hal knows he has an audience now and stops to casually refill his glass.

“Wine sauce?”

“Wine, Worcestershire, lemon.”

We fall onto the couch excitedly.  His sauce ids perfect, that is to say, exactly like mine.  He coats the birds generously with butter and salt. He uses a very hot oven. Cooks them fast.  Likes them rare.  With wild rice.  Wine sauce.  French bread.  And good wine.

Joe is giggling absurdly.  He gets a shotgun out of the gun rack and tracks imaginary birds with it across the living room.  Hal and I get down to some serious duck talk.  By serious, I mean we are going to do it.  Have a duck dinner together.

The problem is that duck has been closed for eight weeks.  A Long Island duckling or any other market duck is as much like a wild duck as a twelve-pound self-basting turkey is like a mourning dove.  We could use frozen birds left over from the season and trust that they’ve been treated properly.  Hal admits having two sprig.  Joe has three teal.  This little piggy has none.

Trade, that’s it, trade somebody something for one.  How about a nice striped bass for a mallard or two?  My brother still has ducks in his freezer and, yes, he says we would like to have a bass.

I know a place to catch one and the following evening I’m fly casting into the teeth of a spring gale, waiting for the first feeders.  The first one comes almost to the boat before the hook pulls loose.  With an easy flip of its tail I se a plump mallard glide out of sight into the murky waters of the bay.  The wind gets stronger and my chances of not hooking another fish are steadily improving.  Surprisingly, a bass surfaces near shore, and in a quick backhand maneuver I cover him and he’s on.  This duck puts up a good fight but is no match for the ferocity with which I haul him over the transom and make him mine.

When you consider the great cuisines of the world, notably those of the Orient and France, many of the finer dishes are made with duck.  In a sense, duck is to chicken what pork is to veal.  It has extraordinary texture and flavor.

Because of their fine qualities, ducks have been domesticated for centuries.  In France, the two most commonly raised for the table are the Rouen duck and the Nantes duck.  There are several other varieties, including a crossbreed used especially for foie gras.  The Rouen duck is unique partly because of the way it is killed.  In order to be sure the bird looses no blood, it is smothered.  Because of this the blood remains distributed in the meat, giving it a reddish brown color and a special flavor, which is highly valued.  These ducks are eaten the day they are killed to avoid possible buildup of toxins.

Wild ducks are found in the Orient, but there, too, the birds were long ago domesticated and thoroughly incorporated into the cuisine.  For instance, in the north, ducks are sometimes inflated with air so that the skin lifts away from the flesh to become very crispy, creating the famous Peking duck.  In the south, ducks are often filled with seasoned liquids, then roasted to create Cantonese duck.  The Chinese roast, simmer, braise, smoke, steam, and deep-fry ducks.  The results are universally sublime: the aforementioned Peking duck, roast-honey duck, chestnut-braised duck, red-simmered duck, eight-jewel duck, white-simmered duck, Nanking duck, duck steamed with tangerines, steamed deep-fried pressed duck, stir-fried duck, tea-smoked duck, and hundreds of variations on these recipes.

The French have their famous caneton a l’orange and variations thereof, duckling mousse, duckling with cherries, olives, turnips, sauerkraut or peas, and he remarkable gallantine de caneton.  But perhaps the duck’s finest moment in French cuisine arrives in the form of canton Rowena’s en salamis a la presser, described by the redoubtable Paul Because as Rouen duck from the Hotel de la Corinne, and of which he says, “… it is the best one can imagine.”  Essentially, this is a roasted duck, carved in the standard French manner, served with a sauce made in part of the reduced juices pressed from the bird’s carcass.  The dish is guaranteed to make you forget all about the farmer advancing across his barnyard, pillow in hand.

All of this exotic and sophisticated cookery notwithstanding, a wild duck remains a wild duck.  The reason why domestic and wild birds are so unlike one another is very simple.  Domestic ducks walk slowly around the barnyard, and are generously fed so their meat lacks density and becomes laden with fat.  In the United States, the ducks which best demonstrate this are the Long Island ducklings available in markets. Wild waterfowl are all migratory.  They travel thousands of miles at high speed.  It is said that the reason ducks and geese fly in a “V” formation is that the strongest bird leads and the others follow in his slipstream.  When he tires, one of the birds, which have been traveling toward the rear, moves up to take his place.  These waterfowl suggest the vast scope of seasonal mysteries through a tremendous display of grace and nobility.

The heart is the only other muscle which must sustain longer and more even activity than the breast of the wild duck or goose.  For this reason, the breasts of these birds are very large, rich with life-giving blood, and extremely dense, the birds themselves being almost entirely without fat.  Wild goose, incidentally, is also totally unlike its domestic counterpart.  No other table bird has as much fat as a barnyard goose.  Wild goose, like wild duck, has none. There fore if you follow a recipe for a domestic goose while trying to cook a wild one, you’ll ruin it.

As with other dark-meated birds and animals – sage hens, doves, antelope and deer, for instance, -- very precise cooking is essential.  Oven temperature should never fall below 450 degrees and cooking time is short.  Mere minutes too long and these meats will be dried out and ruined. All game, especially wild duck, should be cooked rare.  If you don’t like it you should stick to gruel or corned beef hash.  A friend recently pointed out that the waitresses in the sleaziest diner in America always ask how you want your steak cooked.  You might say in this case it’s a toss up who is more ignorant, the fry cook or the customer.  In a truly fine restaurant, never is the diner asked how he would like something cooked.  That is the chef’s job.

In Europe, game is available in most good restaurants.  Chefs there have centuries of experience to inform them and they never get it wrong.  In America, it is unlawful to sell game of any kind and so it remains the hunter’s reward alone.  Here, the chef who must get it right is you.

I call Joe.  “Got some ducks. When can we do it?”

“How about this Thursday night?  That’ll give us time to think about it for a few days, you know, to get ready.  I’ll call Hall because he’ll want to leave work early that day.”

On Wednesday I am in San Francisco looking around some of the galleries when I run into a woman I’d met almost a year earlier.  We were at a party and she had taken me home.  She was a musician and in her apartment a cello leaned against the Steinway.  I had thought of Casals passionately instructing a young female student to  “hold it like it was your husband.”  Was I going to be her cello?
She was so fully ripe a woman, with such an important frame, that there was nothing to do but whatever she might ask.  She came right to the point, telling me to get undressed and wait for he in bed.  In that zone of half-consciousness we all recognize as the result of too many drugs, I began to wonder if she was crazy and if so was she also dangerous.  I heard voices coming from the bathroom.  Perhaps, I thought, she is talking to herself before slashing her wrists, or worse, planning to bring razor blades to bed.  When I peeked through the door she was naked and had a green parrot on her shoulder and they were talking.  When it got light she had woven me into a cocoon of sexual heat that stupefied me for weeks.

Now, a year and a half-dozen fruitless phone calls later, we are sitting having a cappuccino and her voice is deeper than I remember, her hair darker red.  When we are about to part she says simply, “Be at my apartment at nine tomorrow night. Ciao.”

Joe listen, there’s this woman … well, what I was wondering was could we possibly do the duck thing on Friday night.”

“Are you kidding?  You are kidding, aren’t you?  Hal would short circuit.  The ducks are thawed!  We’ve been getting ready.”

“But I … you’re right.  What am I saying?  I’ll be there.”

On Thursday I make an ingredients run.  You can’t trust anyone else to do this.  First stop is the Sonoma Bakery on the town square in Sonoma to purchase the San Francisco Bay area’s finest loaf.  The French salesgirl drops the magnificent two-pounder into the bag and it hits bottom with a sound like hands clapping.

Next stop is Petrini’s in Greenbrae, one of the great supermarkets on earth.  I buy two-dozen fresh bluepoints, large perfect avocados, two grapefruit, fresh lemons, parsley, shallots, garlic, unsalted butter, Worcestershire, red currants, red-currant jelly, a dry red wine for the sauce, and at the deli counter, a good brie.

In Sausalito I find two bottles of Echezeaux and a Pommard, old, heavy, aromatic reds that seem just the thing to go with the duck.  And bottle of Cordon Bleu brandy.  I have a handful of dry bay leaves from a tree near my mother’s house, and from the Ramy Seed Co. in Minnesota, a pound-and-a-half of extra-long-grain wild rice.

When Joe and I get to Hal’s his lady is putting on her coat.  “I don’t want to know anything about this,” she says, backing out the door.  Hal explains that she saw it before and was appalled.  His ducks are sitting on the sideboard.  From his wine rack he has taken two bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and they are standing open.  I open my bottles and we begin to examine the ducks, counting wounds, guessing ages, noting the peculiarities of each species.  We have a mallard, two sprig, three teal, and two widgeon.

We dress up the bluepoints with a dash of Tabasco and lemon juice.  They are light and fresh, perfect with a bottle of Fume Blanc, which just happened to be in Hal’s refrigerator.  The bay outside the window looks like modern art, shiny and pinkish in the afterglow of a smooth spring day.  Two canvasbacks swim by and I undress them in my mind.

The beginning of our sauce is the result of a previous meal. A stock was made by simmering duck carcasses with vegetables, and was then frozen.  Now it is will be heated and reduced.  We drop in a couple of the bay leaves.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Hal?”

“I’m going to stuff the ducks with this onion.”

“I knew it, Joe, he’s going to ruin the goddamn ducks.”

“Trust me.  I stuff them loosely.  Little salt and pepper. Little onion. Little butter. Splash of sherry.”

“Okay.  But make mine extra loose.  And for God’s sake, when you put them in the oven, don’t let the ducks touch one another.”

We bring the wild rice to a boil twice, rinsing it each time.  The trick is to cook it more by soaking in hot water than by actual simmering.  Brought to a boil for the third time, in chicken stock rather than plain water, it is removed from the heat and left to stand.  I make a small salad of avocado slices and grapefruit sections, finishing it with a vinaigrette dressing.

We turn the oven up to 500 degrees.  Before roasting, the ducks must be completely and heavily covered with butter softened to room temperature.  The birds are then salted and put on a low rack set on a shallow roasting pan.

Timing will be crucial, so it pays not to drink too much until the birds are cooked, carved, and served.  The three big ducks go in first, followed seven minutes later by the widgeon.  Six minutes later the three teal go in, and ten minutes after that all the ducks are done.  When the ducks come out of the oven, Hal and I carve them carefully into two halves, disjoining the wings and legs from the carcasses and the breast meat.  These are set on a warm platter.

Meanwhile, Joe has added to the stock a dash of Worcestershire, a bit of finely chopped shallot, and several squeezes of lemon juice.  The stock is boiled rapidly for some minutes to develop its flavor and also reduce it a bit further.  Finally it is strained into a skillet, brought to a fast simmer, and the carved duck placed skin side up in it to take the blood-rare edge away from the carved face.  We are careful not to leave the birds on this stock for more than about ten seconds.  Hal has a wonderful kitchen utensil not much in demand around the suburbs these days: a duck press.  The halves of duck are placed on a covered, heated platter, ready to be served.  The carcasses are then pressed to extract every bit of juice, which is then added to the reduced stock.  We add some pre-soaked currants, and the sauce is done.  Finally, the French bread is toasted under the broiler, rubbed with a garlic clove, and liberally buttered.  We are ready to eat.

Before long, rice and sauce cover the table.  Lemon wedges lie scattered about.  French bread is torn loose.  Each bite of rare, juicy meat is a new thrill, wild duck being something like a cross between filet mignon and fresh deer heart, only with more flavor than either.

Our wine glasses become increasingly grease-smeared as we pick up each carcass and suck down to the bare bone and gristle.  We carelessly gulp the fancy vintages.  Our shirt fronts are ruined.  Juice and blood run from elbows on to knees and the floor.  The room is blurred. We belch, fart, laugh, and groan.

As the carnage winds down I think about my date and wonder if it’s too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus.  I find a mirror and what I see there can only be described as soiled.

I grab a glass of cognac and flop into a lounge chair out on the deck.  The salt air feels good and as I gaze vacantly into the middle distance, nearly comatose, I wish without much conviction that her tits were in my face.

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