My Relationship to Ducks

mallard duck taking offThe reward for staring into the back of a pew for an hour every Sunday morning was a brief respite at the neighborhood duck pond. Catholic Mass probably would have been more torturous for my toddler self if the powers that be hadn’t left Latin behind, but as it was, all of the sermons and readings sounded muffled or mumbled. My strategy was to sit on my hands and wait for my two activities to arrive: passing the collection basket and shaking the hands of the people around me. Then I got to go and spread my love and all, as ordered by our pastor.

But really, I just wanted to feed the ducks.

Current proscriptions about sharing food with wild animals what they are, in the mid-1970s nobody balked at me showing up weekly with stale scraps of bread bundled in the plastic wrap of the loaf packaging. I would size up the attendees, doing something of a rough headcount, and then break up my supply of carbs accordingly. Girl ducks, less colorful than the mallards, got a little more, but my favorite recipient of the bunch was a one-legged duck who hopped to get around. He seemed not to like being in the water because his one-sided webbing made it difficult for him to go where he wanted in the pond. Even as a very young child I preferred the underdog, and I’d do whatever I could to ensure he got all of the bites I intended for him.

Feeding these ducks included quacking at them, which I did to convince myself that I was some kind of waterfowl whisperer, though in hindsight, I can see that they were just inclined to stream toward a small human–dressed in his Sunday best–with food. But at the time I saw this as my communing with nature. Even as I hit adolescence I went to the duck pond frequently, even clambering around in the water, by this point bordering on brackish, and cleaned out garbage with a couple of friends.

What began as a short outing turned into some kind of culinary loyalty against consuming duck meat. Who eats their friends, after all? New Jersey, with all of its high-end cuisine and love of the Chinese restaurant, gave me many opportunities to look shocked at the suggestion that I would betray my little loves. Even as everyone else at the table oohed and ahhed over the succulent dishes made from duck, I stuck to my chicken fried rice guns. More for them, they declared. If that was their advantage why did they keep offering it to me?

And then, one day, in my 20s, by pure accident, duck passed my lips. Cassoulet, with white beans and the most delicious of gravies. It was velvet in my mouth. I inquired about the bite from my friend’s plate. Poulet, I knew, was French for chicken. I hadn’t paid attention when she’d ordered canard.

There was no going back. I couldn’t claim purity any longer–I was a duck Judas. And then I began to compartmentalize. I loved feeding those ducks at the pond, but maybe I could enjoy a dinner off the specialties menu, too?

Oh, the guilt. It came in waves, large at first, eventually settling into quiet ripples.

I still visit my ducky friends; there’s a pond about five blocks away from home. Emile isn’t old enough to have noticed them when we dally at the pond, but he will at some point, and I won’t introduce the concept of feeding them since at this location its verboten. But hopefully he’ll let me quack at them and giggle when I try to get them to wander over toward us. And I’m okay with the fact that as I write this post, my mouth has started watering. Mmm, duck confit.

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