Today, enjoy Part II of Michael R. Shea’s piece on duck hunting, where he takes to the kitchen to figure out the best way to prepare a season’s worth of ducks. Or start from the beginning with Part I of Michael’s story.
After my first few hunts with Bob, his wife Susan invited me over for a duck dinner. As my shooting had improved, I started stacking dead ducks in my freezer and, not so much a cook myself, I had wondered aloud and often about what I should do with them. Growing up fishing, we almost always threw our catch back. Yet after each duck hunt, if it was a good day, I’d have up to eight dead birds in the trunk of my car, wrapped in a white kitchen garbage bag.
With my first bird, Bob showed me how to “breast it out,” standing in his driveway, his two retrievers fixated on the dead duck—tails moving back and forth in a slow, concentrated wag. Bob peeled back the feathers and skin from the bird’s collar down to its gut, exposing the two slabs of dark red breast meat. With a sharp knife, he started near the sternum and cut down and away from that cartilage keel, shearing off a lump a fresh meat.
That first season I’d do as he did, cleaning birds in my backyard, standing over a trash can, still in my camouflage and muddy boots. Little pieces of down would hang in the air like snowflakes as I wrestled back the skin. My own puppy would race around my heels, snapping at the white fuzz as it settled on the patio. Soon I looked forward to cleaning my birds as much as I did the actual hunting, or the loading the decoys in the truck, or cleaning my gun the evening after.
Everything in life is process. Everything is doing. Duck hunting didn’t teach me that, but it made it obvious and clear. Satisfaction in the particulars, bloody as they were, all tied back for me to that 5 a.m. sunrise feeling—a connectedness with, and a part of, something transcendent, something larger than myself.
The First Taste
Too bad the ducks themselves tasted terrible. Waterfowl hunters lie about this fact regularly, and I can understand why. Non-hunters and PETA people will use whatever they can to misunderstand and stay ignorant of why we do what we do, so the M.O. in hunter circles is to describe duck meat as pure ambrosia, golden and delicious, like the best piece of poultry you’ve ever had.
To be fair, not everyone dislikes the taste of wild duck. Actually, it tastes like liver. That first duck dinner that Susan cooked was fantastic—except for that hunk of mallard on my plate. She cooked it much like one would oven roast a chicken breast, though she wrapped it in bacon. (Wild game is so lean it dries out quickly; the bacon keeps the moisture in.) Not a fan of liver, I was not a fan of duck prepared in such a minimalist style.
With my newfound hunting friends, I kept on talking about the thirty-plus dead ducks in my freezer. I started to feel guilty and knew that if I couldn’t find an enjoyable way to consume my kill, I wouldn’t be able to kill them anymore. That much death for nothing just seemed wrong. Then someone said two words that saved my season: pepper sticks.
Pepper sticks are essentially Slim Jims—a spicy meat straw that, like a McDonald’s French fry and uranium, does not decay along a human timeline. I brought roughly five pounds of duck meat and $40 to a nearby slaughter house. Two months later I had 10 pounds of pepper sticks, the duck meat cut with pork. They were delicious. Even my girlfriend, who often flirted with vegetarianism, could be found munching them in front of the TV on a late Sunday night.
In the Meantime
Hunters are a rather OCD lot. Because there is so little that they can control in the woods, on the hunt, many fixate on the nuances of choke tubes or the intricacies of blind concealment—those controllable details—with a particular kind of fervor. (One line of duck hunter clothing is called Obsession.) The duck season only runs about three, three-and-a-half months, but there’s nearly a dozen duck hunter magazines running six, eight, twelve months a year. About July your average duck hunter starts thinking about the season—tweaks to the boat, new spots to scout—and come August he’s in the basement re-stringing decoys, tinkering with this, fiddling with that. In September, if he’s in a state that has an early goose season, as many Northeast states do, he’s lying out in cornfields or, if it’s this year, he’s cursing the heavy spring rains and merciless summer heat.
After my first hunting season in California, I moved back to the Northeast. I took ducks that second season on the byways of eastern Connecticut and in the Rhode Island surf. No place to get pepper sticks, the birds soon crowded out the frozen vegetables in my tiny New York City freezer. Weeks would go by and I’d forget about them, but then the Ducks Unlimited magazine would arrive, or I’d get an email from an old California buddy. The double-bagged Ziplocs of dense dark meat slowly moved from the freezer to the fridge, little descriptions written on the plastic in Sharpie: Christmas Eve goose, 2009; ten mallards, Dec. 6-7, 2009; sea ducks, Charlestown, January.
Experimenting in the Kitchen
I tried roasting ducks, sautéing ducks and salting ducks. I came up with dozens of marinades—soy sauce-based for savory, House of Tsang Szechuan for spicy. In time I settled on a simple process for making duck jerky. It’s perhaps the most basic way to preserve meat. Heat and time.
I start by letting the hunks of breast meat thaw out, then I soak them in salt water for 48 hours, changing the water frequently. After that I slice them into thin strips. I aim for quarter-inch cuts, and use a sharp Gerber fillet knife. I tried a mandoline, but nothing beats a good knife. Then I soak the strips for 24 hours in my marinade.
It’s tempting to list my favorite recipes, but, for me, experimenting is part of the process. I never measure anything. I just pour a base of soy or Szechuan in a Ziploc, add a little water, then maybe a little sugar, pepper, a lot of Tabasco and whatever else is in my cabinet at the time. As a rule, if I’m going for spicy, I make the marinade about ten times spicier than I think I can handle; the cooking process melts the heat away. After a day in the marinade, in the fridge, I hang the strips across my oven racks, a little foil spread over the bottom to catch the drippings.
There are several popular dry jerky rubs on the market, but none are better than a wet homemade marinade, if you’re okay with the drippings. Usually I hang the meat first thing in the morning, half asleep, drinking coffee, preserving game over my modern fire. I set the oven to 200 degrees and flip the meat every 40 minutes or so. Usually around the three-hour mark, a deep smoky smell fills my apartment and I know the strips are done. They’re more like duck chips than jerky, really; crunchy, a little salty or a little spicy.
The duck season in Connecticut opens October 15. Last week I made jerky in the morning and ordered my hunting license and various stamps and permits online. The freezer is empty now. Even the bag of ten eider hearts is gone—an experiment, really, that the dogs wouldn’t even eat. I have ideas for a new way to roast a whole mallard and I’m thinking of trying a goose confit, my friend’s recipe. I probably won’t start cooking in earnest for a couple months, though, after the hunting is done.
March will come. The city will start to warm up. I’ll think about snowy December mornings on the river, the sun breaking up from behind the reeds. I’ll wake up groggy and fire the oven. The dog will sit on kitchen tiles and cock his head a little to the left. No, we’re not going out to the country yet. At least not yet.