When I was a kid, my older sister had ducks. They liked to swim around in the creek and hang out under the bridge. One afternoon, she and I watched little baby ducks hatch out of their eggs. Whenever hunters came over wanting to hunt pheasant on our property, she would go bonkers afraid that they would shoot her ducks. The beginning of a duck and the end of a duck – I witnessed the anticipation of the first and the fear of the second. But when I think of duck now, the experience I had last Saturday will be what comes to mind.
A few weeks back I got an email from my heroes at Nature’s Harmony Farm offering free ducks. All I saw was “free” and “duck” and I was like woohoo! Yeah, ok! So they said we would have to remove pin feathers (whatever those were) ourselves because they were having a difficult time doing it efficiently on the farm (hence the free part of the deal). I was thinking that I would get a frozen duck with some pain in the tail feathers to figure out how to pick out on my own. Then I learned that in order to obtain said free duck, I would actually be
on the farm helping process the ducks. (Process = live duck to dead, gutted, bald duck ready for duck a l’orange.)
Shoot first, ask questions later. Don’t read the whole email. History repeats itself.
At first I was like ummmm….but I said I wanted free duck so I was willing to own up to my obligation. So I made the trek up to Elberton, GA to practice some real old ways kung fu…duck processing.
Most of the ducks were caught and in cages (yes, these are real free range ducks) when I arrived. I helped clean up the processing area and met the other helpers as they arrived. There were a small number of us plus Liz and Tim, the farm owners. Primed and ready, we all watched solemnly as Tim began the process. He put the duck head first into an upside down cone, then sliced the major artery and allowed the duck to bleed out. Because humane treatment is important to them (and all of us helpers) Tim made the effort to ensure it was done properly and that
minimal suffering was involved.
Apparently we were a little too solemn because I think we made Tim self concious. “You all are looking at me like I’m the bad guy,” he said with a small grin. But it wasn’t that. At least for me, I needed to see it happen. I needed to have that much participation in the end of life moment. If we are going to eat animals, we should not divorce ourselves from the process or lie to ourselves about what happens.
In factory farm processing, the animals live a horrendous life in cramped quarters, wallowing around in their own feces and being jacked up with Lord only knows what chemicals/antibiotics/hormones, then meet their end by someone who has no regard for their lives. Not so on Nature’s Harmony Farm, where the animals are allowed to be themselves, doing what it is God meant them to do. Swim. Peck. Quack with other ducks. And when the time comes, the last thing they see is someone who respects them and honors the value
of their lives. The cycle of life will end one way or the other, and if I was a bird I know which one I would choose.
Once the ducks are off the cone, they go into a scald which loosens the feathers. After that, they go for a spin in a plucking machine which removes most of the feathers. From the spinner to the table, the ducks loose their feet and heads. At least one volunteer was willing to help with that part (not me – I didn’t get a waiver from Bill to use a knife. He knows
how I am.)
After the extremities are removed, we got to work removing the pin feathers and any other feathers left on the duck. Tim and Liz said these were going much better than the ones they’d done before, but it was still a pain. Little tiny feathers remained that stuck to our fingers or stuck back to the duck. Some were easier than others, but we persevered and had plenty of time to get to know our fellow processers.
After the de-feathering was completed, it was time for the really fun part: evisceration. Liz showed us how to open
up the duck and carefully remove all the guts. I didn’t do the actual evisceration part, but I did separate the liver, heart and gizzards from a lot of duck guts. I also learned how to clean and cut up the gizzard. I was afraid at first (especially because it involved the knife, don’t tell Bill) but I got the hang of it.
We processed thirty ducks and helped clean up the processing shed over about four hours. I packed up my cooler with five ducks, a small bag of the organs to give it a try, and some of the feet for stock making.
After it was all said and done, I did not feel grossed out, wrong or mean. I felt like I’d done honest work (will work for duck?) and did a reasonably good job of it. And there was no doubt where my ducks came from or how they had lived. I had a local, organic, sustainable and ethical cooler full of duck that I had helped process myself.
I was anxious to cook a fresh duck, so one stayed out and the other four went into the freezer along with the feet and offal. Using a recipe loosely based on this one, I went about roasting my duck. I was told low and slow was the way to go…but apparently I didn’t do it low enough. After 40 minutes at 325 degrees my temperature probe (which I had probably misplaced) was telling me the thigh was done. I thought it was telling me lies so I turned down the temperature and left it in the oven for about a total of one hour forty-five minutes.
I think that was a mistake.
Not low enough, not slow enough, I’m thinking was my kung faux pas. The duck came out looking fantastic, but it was tough and the skin (which tasted fabulous) was not crispy, but kind of rubbery. The flavor of the meat was great, but you had to want it. Chewing was a bit of a challenge.
Test subject Bill agreed that it tasted great, but suggested a soup for the leftovers. So I stripped the bird as best I could and cut the pieces up into small chunks. I threw together a soup of duck bits, home made chicken stock, some potatoes and onions from the farmers market, a can of kidney beans and seasonings. It actually turned out pretty good and cutting up the duck meat into small manageable chunks made it much easier to eat.
I felt better about the whole thing after the soup success. And I have four more ducks to perfect my process. I will not be discouraged!
Having participated in the process was a valuable experience and I am so glad I did it. It truely does bring you closer to the food that is nourishing your body. It isn’t artificially sanitized the way buying chicken breast on toilet paper wrapped in saran wrap is, or a bag of apples that came from who knows where that has touched who knows what. You know the truth when you do it yourself. It’s honest, it’s real and it’s yours.
I was told that the true meaning of kung fu is time and effort, a studious, dedicated person. I thank Tim and Liz for the time and effort and for teaching me this duck kung fu.