A good deed, and good eating

I am working to bring the Cayuga duck, an internationally recognized regional culinary treasure, back from endangered to established, and you can help.

The Native Earth Teaching Farm is offering a community supported Cayuga duck flock. As in other types of community supported agriculture projects, participants will pre-pay to cover up-front expenses and avoid waste. I am also offering the option of helping people raise these ducks on their own.

Cayuga ducks are black with brilliant metallic green highlights. They are lively without being flighty, forage well, and are cold hardy. The Cayuga is the only variety of domestic duck that originated in the U.S. Developed in upstate New York, they were a popular commercial duck, known for superior flavor and raised in quantity in the New England region.

Today, Cayuga ducks are rare and endangered. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists only about 1,000 breeding pairs. Cayugas are also on the “Ark of Taste,” a list of endangered regional food specialties considered worthy of rescue by Slow Food International. The listing reads in part, “Although it is difficult to clean and prepare, it has very high quality meat with an intense beefy flavor. The breast, while smaller than that of other more conventional duck breeds, produces a succulent deep red meat with a complex taste.”

The cause of the Cayuga’s decline, and that of every other colored poultry breed, is the way they look when raw and plucked. Colored feathers coming in under the yellow skin make the bird look speckled. (Cooking makes this disappear.) Before commercial refrigeration, people would buy poultry, the butcher would slaughter it, and it would be prepared at home. Now that we buy birds plucked and kitchen-ready, looks when raw is all-important, and that is why all commercial poultry breeds today are white. A great deal of flavor and beauty and regional diversity was lost in this transition.

Our species’ tendency to “think with our eyes” and our cultural emphasis on appearance over substance (or even over sustainability) is creating planetary problems. There is more at risk than colored poultry. Our happiness and survival depend on learning to make life’s choices from the heart and the gut, as well as the mind. As we diversify our perception, other values enter the equation. When in addition to looks we include such qualities as flavor, nutrition, justice, and satisfaction, perspectives change, and the Cayuga duck begins to seem valuable again.

Rebecca Gilbert

Chilmark