Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Duck

by Eileen Shields

February 2015    

According to foodpreservation.about.com, duck parts will keep in the freezer for nine months to a year.

It has been nearly a year during which, at least once a week, I have opened my freezer, spotted the bag, dark and lumpy as a Santeria sacrifice, and shuddered, shutting the door again, hard.

My husband shot the duck on a hunting expedition in Hagerman, Idaho. My husband is no hunter; he is a businessman—and some of his businessmen friends decided it would be fun to swap out their dark suits and power ties for camouflage jumpers and neon orange vests over a long weekend of drinking and cussing and shooting.

He came home with the bag.

PETA forgive me, but I am ambivalent about the death of these ducks. As long as they aren't endangered and as long as they are killed humanely, I have bigger (pardon the pun) fish to fry than to get all huffy about where my food comes from.

But it isn't food unless you eat it, and we have yet to eat this duck. I haven't the foggiest what to do with it.

If only it were fish. I have some experience with fish. When I was growing up, my family would go tent camping up in the Mammoth Lakes region of Northern California. While mom settled into her webbed lawn chair beneath a shade tree, a pile of paperback murder mysteries by her side, my dad would rent a rowboat and some fishing poles from the camp store, and take however many of his four offspring he could squeeze some enthusiasm from, and spend an hour or two on the lake watching us hook each other's eyebrows and knuckles. Dad would patiently bait us up and untangle our snarled line while drinking a modest can or two of Bud. Because we always went out right after the lake had been stocked, we'd return to the campsite, smelly and sunburnt, hauling a string laden with our limit of 9-inch trout—just big enough to keep.

I couldn't have been more than seven or eight when my dad handed me the burl handled camp knife and taught me how to clean a fish. Leaning hard into the blade to remove the head just below the fluttery gills with a snap of bone. Slitting them straight down the pale belly, flicking away all the slimy pink and grey insides, and rinsing them in the cement trough set up for that purpose.

Afterwards, mom would fry them on the propane stove, but even though the sizzle of trout browning in butter made my mouth water, I never ate any of those fish. I just couldn't eat something that I'd made eye contact with while it was still conscious.

Which is why I have no interest in hunting. I'm afraid that at the moment of truth I will lose my nerve. I will flinch or waver and cause some poor, dumb animal's panicked, lengthy, hopeless struggle.

The duck in my freezer did not struggle. It had just taken wing with a large flock, rising up from a frozen pond in a cloud of beating brown feathers. Perhaps it heard the crack of the shotgun, but I doubt it. I like to think that its little duck heart was full of the exhilaration of flight, wind in its face as it soared toward heaven. That death arrived swift and certain as a thunderclap.

My husband says the 'downed birds' were fetched by a pack of soft-mouthed, good-natured Labrador retrievers. Later the fowl were sent someplace to be cleaned, trimmed, and vacuum-sealed.

The expense of this processing into tidy packages, like the one in my refrigerator, is ridiculous. Add it to the cost of the cammo pants (which my husband had to buy) and the guns and buckshot (which he borrowed) and the guides and dogs and other necessary hunting paraphernalia—and let's just say that for the price of this five-pound flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed bag of dead duck, my husband and I could have ordered a duck dinner out at a nice restaurant...in Paris.

But beyond the dollars and cents, because one could chalk the cost up to entertainment value, like a round of golf or a day at the spa, there's the morality issue. I am only okay with the killing of animals for 'sport,' if the life of the animal is not wasted.

This is an easy thing to say since I don't go around killing things. It's like when I say I would never wear fur. I live in Los Angeles, a city where even in the dead of winter I rarely need more than a light cardigan. If I lived in Moscow you might find me bundled in jacket made of puppies. Who knows? I've never really been tested.

A few months ago on a flight to New York, I was seated next to a woman who confided to me that she'd watched her son eat a squirrel. Now that shows commitment to your principles. She was fortyish, attractive in an LLBean, clog-wearing sort of way. She lived on an organic family farm in upstate New York and had been visiting LA as part of a side business in which she facilitated a gardening curriculum for urban elementary school districts, so "city children can see where their food comes from." She was vigorously chatty, and, as I am terrified of flying, I enjoyed the distraction. Whenever her energy flagged I’d prod her with a question.

The woman shared my 'whatever you kill, you must eat' philosophy, but unlike myself, she really walked-the-walk. Her ten year old, upon receiving his first shotgun, had promptly gone out and shot a squirrel. Having raised her boy with this rule, she felt it would by hypocritical not to enforce it, and watched with approval as he skinned and roasted and ate the rodent. He even cured the squirrel's pelt, and gifted it to his younger sister for her doll.

I kept waiting for the moment in the story when she'd say, 'and then of course I took the squirrel away from him and threw it in the trash,' but she didn't. She seemed as pleased about her son eating that squirrel as I would be about my son pitching a no-hitter. I admired her ethical consistency.

So, the duck must be eaten.

My moral compass steers me as I remove the bag from the freezer, putting it into the fridge to thaw. In 24 hours the mass will be unfrozen. After that spoilage speeds up exponentially. The clock is ticking.

I ask my husband if any duck was consumed on his hunting trip and if so, how it was prepared. Of course it was eaten! Prepared by a professional chef who created some amazing sort of sausage out of it. Even I know that 'amazing sausage' is code for hiding something nasty by grinding it up with tasty things and stuffing it into a casing. I saw Sweeney Todd. Twice.

I begin my duck research with some of my favorite online cooking sites, but every recipe from Gourmet and Bon Appetit and Food Network starts with rendering the fat and crisping the skin. By now the bag of meat had thawed enough that I could tear it open and get a look at what I was dealing with. These were not whole cut up ducks, they were duck breasts, and there is no fat on these breasts, or skin for that matter.

Wild duck is game meat, and the defrosting nuggets in the bag certainly smell gamey—mossy and muddy with a subtle metallic tinge of blood. To be honest, the bag smells like misery. I am surprised that there are so many breasts. I count a dozen, each the size of a pack of cards.

All the friendly wild duck Internet pages warn me about of the bloodiness of the meat. A lot of people that sounded like 'city folk' advise soaking the breasts in milk for a few hours to draw out the blood. Others recommend brining the breasts in salt water. I go for the salt water, as the idea of these dank, livery lumps swirling around in pinking milk just about makes me hurl.

The knobs of flesh bobbing in the bowl of salty water could be anything. They do not look like duck per say. They vary in color from the grey pink of a pencil erasure to the deep purple of a new bruise. Some are stippled with flecks like dark seeds from the buckshot. I put them in the fridge to brine—a process that takes a few hours, thus buying myself more time.

But every time I go to the fridge for something, they greet me—the brine water scarlet with leeched blood, smelling heavy and sad. I change the water. I will change it three more times before giving up.

After trolling a dozen duck hunting blogs with photos of fellers round the campfire dressed in flannel plaid and holding tin plates, I choose a recipe. The marinade calls for a lot of Worcestershire sauce and garlic, because the strong taste of wild duck can 'stand up' to that powerful combination. I learn that Worcestershire sauce gets its flavor mostly from anchovies. I've been throwing Lea & Perrins into stuff for years and did not know that until now.

I remove the duck from the fridge, dump the brine, and pat the breasts dry with paper towels. Then I chop the garlic, whisking it along with the Worcestershire, some olive oil and a bit of hot sauce. I plunk them all in, sloshing them around. Sure enough, the spicy concoction smothers the duck funk. I am feeling optimistic and a little bit pioneer-y, like maybe I'll churn some artisanal butter to top them with. Instead I opt for a box of couscous.

Three hours later, I remove the breasts from the marinade and place them on a smoking hot grill. The sauce that clings to them is caramelized by the flame, and the result is a lovely crackly glaze. Although there will be just the two of us for dinner, I cook all of them, imagining they will make tasty leftovers, maybe sliced in a sandwich.

They are so small that I place two on each plate with a scoop of couscous and some green beans. I managed to get a lovely crisscross of grill marks on each one, and they resemble two perfect petite filet mignons.

"Smells good," my husband says, and they do smell good, meaty and garlicy. When I slice into one with my knife, I find it tender and pink in the center, which according to all my online wild duck cooking experts, means the breast is perfectly done.

I pop a piece into my mouth. The first bite bursts with salt and spice and vinegar and garlic, flavors which melt away as I chew, replaced with the essence of something akin to muddy water.

I glance over at my husband. He is chewing thoughtfully as he stabs a heaping forkful of green beans. My husband doesn't like green beans.

With my second mouthful, the tang hits me faster, harder. Like blood. No, more like insects. Tadpoles. Frogs. As I swallow I taste pungent earthworms and slimy minnows and tinny mosquito larva and murky algae. I taste the bitter, filthy struggle for survival in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Methodically I cut all of my remaining duck into bite-sized pieces. My husband follows my cue. Then he dumps all of his pieces onto my plate, and I scrape the entire pile into the dog bowl.

The dog wolfs down every last bite and licks his chops.

We are saved.



  Eileen Shields holds an MFA in creative writing from UCRPD. Her essays have appeared in Fiction Attic Press, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, and Toast. She lives in Los Angeles where she is working on her first novel.

 

Photo used under Creative Commons.