In Print : Native Earth Teaching Farm talks duck
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
"Book of Duck Cookery" by Rebecca Randall Gilbert, drawings by Anne Ganz, self-published, 68 pp. $15. Proceeds to benefit public access and education at Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark. Available at the farm and at nativeearthteachingfarm.org.
We like ducks. The D-word is part of everyday conversation.
Yell "Duck!" and everyone reacts. Everything's "ducky" for us on a good day. We take to new experiences "like a duck takes to water." We even respect the hardiness of ducks — beastly weather is "a great day for ducks." "Duck Soup" is a Marx Brothers classic movie. Animators made Donald and Daffy cultural icons, and ducks are the heroes in some ageless children's books.
But duck is a rare bird on our regular menus. Why is that?
If that's a question you've found to be troubling, you have come to the right book review. Rebecca Randall Gilbert, impresario of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, and an encyclopedic source of information on duck matters, has just written "The Book of Duck Cookery." The 68-page soft cover is billed as a cookbook but reads like a delightful storybook with menus.
"Why is duck less popular today? A lot of ducks are fatty. They used to be more popular than they are now. Free-range ducks are way less fatty. But there are simple ways to remove fat, like cooking then chilling them. The fat will rise to the surface and can be easily removed. Or, slow roasting on a rack allows fat to drain out," Ms. Gilbert wrote.
Duck is a staple in diets in many countries. "Ducks are relatively easy to raise. They are good for places where there isn't enough land to raise beef. Duck is popular for that reason in several Asian countries and there are a lot of European varieties," she said.
The book engages, whether or not you enjoy duck, or even cooking for that matter. Ms. Gilbert delivers a mixture of homily, philosophy, language, and common sense that is much more interesting than your basic recipe calling for two tablespoons sugar, one-half cup of milk.
"I like cookbooks that tell stories and often read cookbooks just for the fun of it, not intending to cook any of it," she said in an interview last week. A prime example of her discursive approach is the recipe for honey-roasted duck, adapted from one of her all-time favorite cookbooks, "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine," by Norma Jean and Carole Darden.
"The story of two sisters, tracing the family tree through recipes, it draws the connections between culture and cuisine in a most delectable and charming way," Ms. Gilbert writes, before describing the ingredients and preparation process.
The 28 recipes include Duck Stone Soup, with reference to the old stone soup fable of community-centered sharing, through to desserts, including vanilla pudding made with duck eggs.
The book is leavened with short passages on subjects including gratitude, Julia Childs's insistence on baking with duck eggs, and why eating endangered ducks is a good thing.
Foodies will like this book. So will wordies. Consider these headlines: "How to Eat a Duck," "Philosophy of a Duck Farmer" and "On the Subject of Gratitude." You have to read the story behind the headline. When you do, you will discover nuggets of health and healing, such as this passage from the recipe on Miso Soup Cup:
"Let the soup stand a minute and meditate on the clouds that arise in it. Dedicate yourself to creating from within the type of environment in which the beneficial influences of the universe are at home, in which they may thrive for the benefit of all beings. Then drink your soup." I loved that, sort of like the Buddha channeling your Mom.
Talking last week at the farm's welcome center, as pygmy goats thrummed past on the wide wooden planks to their next forage spot, Ms. Gilbert showed up as a person of the earth living in the real world.
She communicates awe that she sees in the interconnectedness of the natural process with an enthusiasm that makes you want to see it too. Ms. Gilbert is a student of her life work and incorporates credits to others and provides sources for further readings on culture and tradition that are not standard cookbook fare.
When you read this cookery book, be prepared to learn and to smile.
Jack Shea, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.