We never really knew whose idea it was, but once pronounced, it caught on like wildfire. My father and his sometime hunting buddy, Harry, figured that if they concentrated their efforts over the entire hunting season, they could shoot enough big ducks for a really fancy duck dinner.
North Texas is on the Central Flyway and usually has a sufficiency of waterfowl to satisfy any birder or hunter. Indeed, the variety of waterfowl is striking, as they make their way south from Canada to the Gulf. Wave after wave of teal and mallard and redhead and pintail, and plenty of mud ducks not suitable for refined tastes. But these waves of birds blow by and you never know what you’ll pull in when you set up your decoys and blind at some suitable farm pond (locally called tanks). A tank needed enough water to attract sizeable flocks; it had to be shallow enough for feeding; and deep enough to not dry out before the March rains. And, you had to be able to get to it in the dark on a winter morning. (I’ve spent many a morning pulling cactus out of my leg rather than being attentive to the decoys.)
In those days, limits were generous and amassing a couple dozen ducks for a dinner would not be too onerous. Most of us kids and the hunters’ families accepted a small teal breast in a meal, or understood that sometimes your duck was anatomically incomplete due to the rigor of the capture. But fancy diners, most of whom were strangers to wild game, would be less tolerant of the signs of savagery we were exposed to routinely. These were people who thought the pig symbol at the barbecue place was “cute” and didn’t associate it with the creature slaughtered and slow roasted for their enjoyment.
So a fancy duck dinner required complete carcasses, unmarred by capture or death, not unlike what you’d get at the country club if they served duck. So, big ducks were sought by Harry and my dad. Mallards, redheads and canvasbacks were prized; teal were ignored; and pintail, baldpates, and gadwalls were scrutinized on a case by case basis.
If you’ve never hunted duck, the above strategy seems manageable. My father and his hunting buddies were strict about rules and worked very hard to stay within bag limits. On a cold, gray morning with a twenty mile an hour wind at our back we’d crouch, watching the sky and waiting for the telltale silhouette of an arriving flock. As someone worked the call, trying to lure them down to our decoys, my father would surreptitiously try to determine what kind they were. He’d whisper to us if they were big ducks and we’d all tense up and get ready to shoot. If they were small ducks, we’d try to lure them down to serve as additional, live decoys to supplement the papiermache mallards floating a few feet off shore. If successful, we had the added tension of staying quiet and still, so that the small ducks wouldn’t become alarmed and scare off succeeding flights.
Then finally, there was the moment of truth and action. As the big ducks came down, flew past to reconnoiter, wheeled and set their wings into the wind, my father warned us, “Steady, steady….now!” Four figures raised up quickly and four guns exploded, spreading smoke and mayhem across a sky now filled with fleeing ducks. Any small ducks that had happened to be among the decoys blasted up off the water, further confusing an already chaotic scene.
We’d quickly scout the surface for wounded ducks, then sit back down and resume the calling. Sometimes they’d wheel back around in their confusion, and we had passing shots, always tricky. Other times ducks scared off of other nearby places by the shots would circle and land somewhere safe, say, over there where the flock of mallards sat serenely unmoving at the edge of our tank, calling out, “Food, food, yummy food.”
Then, if we’d been successful, it was time to retrieve the harvest. My father and Harry would direct my brother and me to their kills. We’d bring them in and line them up for identification. There was almost always a strange duck or two that no one remembered shooting, a stray teal who came into harm’s way, or the shoveler whose green head convinced one of us that he was a mallard. As the youngest, it was always assumed I had made the error and my father took great pains to explain to me (and the others who were watching) how to tell a teal from a big duck or a shoveler from a mallard. He would never have considered lecturing Harry, another adult, on these finer points of identification, but as the season wore on, our bags had fewer unintended birds than at the beginning.
The select few were celebrated and preserved for the big night. Meanwhile, we got to eat the smaller pintail, the baldpates and occasional teal. We had to keep the cumulative total within possession limits, which meant that as we approached the big night, we ended up eating more and more duck, and hunting more selectively. Finally, as the season neared its end, two dozen big unmarred duck carcasses resting in our freezer, we somewhat gladly switched to quail hunting to satisfy our manly instincts and culinary needs.
Harry’s wife, Helene, had become enamored of the project and wanted to show off her remodeled dining room and new dishes; so, since no one particularly wanted to stand up to her (especially Harry), the Great Duck Dinner became her event. My father was consulted on the cooking of the ducks and suitable side dishes, but soon Helene dispensed with any show of democracy and became an unchallenged despot.
The ducks were to be roasted in a suitable sauce; baked potatoes would be served with appropriately expansive toppings from matching silver bowls; and glazed carrots would add the right complement to the centerpiece of fall leaves and dried flowers. Dinner would be preceded by slivers of smoked quail on toast, and Helene’s special Caesar salad that she “just throws together from stuff in the fridge.” While taken aback by the fancy direction the whole thing had gone, Harry and my father looked forward to those roast ducks, which represented a whole duck season’s worth of effort. Sharing the experience with the unlearned, bringing light where there was but darkness, was my father’s special joy.
As the night arrived, my parents dressed unusually formally to satisfy Helene’s expectations. We learned from my father the next morning of the success of the dinner. They arrived to cocktails served from silver trays to a host of (self) important community figures, known casually from Sunday dinners at the country club. Helene was in her element, orchestrating introductions and conversations around the room, and simultaneously managing the cooking and serving staff brought in for the occasion.
As they began to sit down to salads, and Helene was explaining how it was really not anything special, but “just thrown together” from little things she had available, one of the kitchen staff approached Helene and whispered something in her ear. She barely revealed a frown and disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later she reappeared and pulled Harry to her side. “Look,” she whispered menacingly, “one of the ducks fell off the rack in the oven and is too burned to eat.” Harry waited uncomprehendingly for her to go on, “I’ve instructed the staff to serve you an extra baked potato instead of a duck.” Her glare stopped his reply, “I do not want you embarrassing me in front of these people, so just eat your potato and keep your mouth shut.” Harry wisely decided not to point out the inconsistency in that statement.
The meal was excellent and the conversation flowed freely as it often does among those who know each other only slightly but have much in common. Harry brooded silently at the end of the table, remembering each duck in its Technicolor glory and thinking about how wonderful they would taste. With the main course, my father claimed center stage to explain the intellectual challenges of duck hunting and the civilizing influence of hunting in general. The guests oohed and aahed over the beautiful birds and ripped into them with gusto, savoring the first tentative bite.
My father, always one to educate when given the chance, explained that one difference in eating wild game rather than domestic game was that you could find shotgun pellets, “shot”, in the meat, and you must chew carefully. Several guests exclaimed when they found a piece of shot and treated it as part of the adventure.
After taking a bite and finding a small shot, which he displayed on his napkin to the somewhat disapproving woman on his left, my father leaned out and called to Harry at the far end, “Hey, Harry. Did you find any shot yet?”
Harry looked up glumly from his plate, and his gaze hardened as he met Helene’s eyes a table length away. Silence fell as everyone sensed an immense struggle and some kind of electric tension that seemed to flow the length of the table. Suddenly, as if released from a magnetic grip, Harry smiled and sat up straight. “No,” he looked at my dad and said, “who the Hell would shoot a potato?”
Somehow the evening continued and was considered by most a culinary and social success. But the next season, Harry wasn’t able to hunt with my father, and never again did we have a Great Duck Dinner.