When we bought our property in New England many years ago, one of the first things we did was buy a half dozen Peking ducks to enhance our small farm dreams. They were so cute, fuzzy and small enough to keep in a bathtub for a short while. They grew fast.
We were working, remodeling, caring for children and parents, and were quickly overwhelmed. We put them outside in a sorely inadequate fenced pen. While at work something got them all; it was an awful sight, and we felt duly responsible and remorseful.
For centuries though wild ducks have been and still are preferred by Native hunters to the domesticated species, because of their delectable taste, primarily the Blue-winged teal. There are over 70 varieties of duck worldwide, both wild and domestic. The Chinese are said to be the first to domesticate the duck by raising them for food. Most domesticated ducks are descended from the mallard.
The American duck industry began in 1873. Today, about 28 million ducks are consumed annually, 95 percent of these are Pekins, also known as Pekings and sometimes called “Long Island” ducks. They are what you will find fresh or frozen in your supermarket.
As for wild ducks, they are divided into two groups: puddle ducks or diving ducks, which refers to the way they feed in the wild. They also need open water, which requires them to migrate in more northern parts of North America. Because of this, they are considered a delightful spring meal by many who have awaited their return from migration. The most famous duck preparation, Peking Duck, involves five days of prep. I can attest—I have made it myself, and it is well worth the effort. It is not like slaving over a bird for five days. But it involves a series of steps: marinate it in sherry, hang to dry, repeat three times, cook on the fourth day, then cut in a precise way, and reheat and serve on day five. The process is designed to make the skin crispy and meat easier to separate once cooked. It is served in a homemade wrap much like a flour tortilla. Add a scallion to the meat and skin and slather with hoisin sauce (made with soybean, garlic, chili peppers and spices—also available in most store’s Asian food section), roll up and devour. I only make it once a year. My family loves it; once you’ve had it you will never forget it.
Other dishes such as Duck a l’orange and Duck Confit have been popularized by the French. American Indian cooks make duck in a variety of ways. The most common is a simple roasted whole bird, stuffed with fruits like blueberries, apples, raisins or a breaded stuffing with nuts. Many of the recipes I have come across highly suggest serving roasted duck with wild rice and/or wild mushrooms as a classic side.
Ducks may be a little more fatty than other game or domestic birds, but they are a good source of iron and protein.
Roasted Duck 1 five-pound duck, rinsed and patted dry
1 orange or apple or both
1 stalk celery (optional)
Stuff duck with apple, orange, onion and celery if desired. Put duck breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan. Salt and pepper. Cover lightly with foil to prevent flying grease (ducks are fatty). Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and reduce heat to 350 degrees, roast for one hour. Let cool on rack for 15 minutes before carving.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.