Knee-Deep in Duck

by Freda Moon, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving Duck

Thanksgiving Duck

Some impulse purchases are more gratifying than others.

This Thanksgiving was to be a small get-together; for our expansive family, an unusually restrained event. As such, we decided to keep our celebratory dinner to the essentials of a Northern California feast: We’d gorge on Dungeness crab, instead of a turkey. We’d throw down a few extras—a couple of vegetarian sides, a salad and some pie—and we’d call it a day.

There would be no bird. No stuffing. Just hunks of chilled crab meat, a few small bowls of butter-beer sauce and the accompanying sounds of cracking, sucking, and, yes, noshing.

Dungeness crab is one of my loves—the food I miss most when I’m far from home.Once, while Tim and I were living on student loans in a 600-square-foot New York apartment, I spent the better part of our weekly food budget on two, large crabs—frozen, overpriced and, ultimately, near flavorless—from Whole Foods Union Square. They were there, and I couldn't resist.  I’ve never understood how our local delicacy has been so overlooked, so under-appreciated, in a lobster, King crab and jumbo prawn world loving world. But it’s Dungeness’s relative obscurity that keeps its price mostly within my humble reach, and for that I’m grateful. So crab seemed as good an idea as any for Thanksgiving dinner.

But truth be told, there was something that seemed anticlimactic about Dungeness as the center of our holiday meal. For me, hours of cooking—all of the careful negotiation of timing and counter space, of family and food in a hot kitchen—is integral to what Thanksgiving is about. It’s about working on a shared project, then sharing in the results. Serving crab meant that there would be no need for one person to stir, while another pours, no need for Tim to hold open the oven, while I slide one dish out and put another in; no need for dad to carve or for Marco to baste. It’s not that crab wouldn’t be delicious, it was just too easy.

While shopping at Fort Bragg’s Harvest Market the Monday before Thanksgiving, I stopped by the meat counter. I wanted to know how the store’s crab supply was selling—and whether I could pick ours up the night before the holiday. There was plenty, I was told. Six hundred pounds had been delivered that day. But as I walked on, past the long line of turkeys, wrapped in plastic and ready to travel, I lingered over the meat case. I found myself eyeing the brines and basters.

And then I bought a duck.

The butcher had caught me eyeing his birds and I’d asked—out of curiosity, I said—if they had anything smaller than a turkey. Did he have some other kind of game bird—something small that I could stuff and baste. Something I could fret over. Something we’d have to work at? So he handed me a duck and sent me on my way.

Then came impulse purchase, number two: The Spanek Vertical Roaster.

Triumph the Comic Duck

Triumph the Comic Duck

It was just there, on the shelf with all the turkey cooking paraphernalia. The contraption claimed to cook duck and that’s what I had. I had a duck, and I didn’t have a clue how to prepare it. The Spanek, for its part, didn’t look like much. I was skeptical of its claims, its cheesy QVC packaging and its simple wire form—like a sloping Eiffel tower.

Only when I got home, and began researching duck recipes, did I realize what I’d gotten myself into. Having never attempted water fowl before, I didn’t realize it was notoriously difficult—with thick skin and copious amounts of oily fat. But somehow, contrary to all my journalistically-imbued skepticism, the Spanek was a success.

The duck was rich and delicious, with crispy skin and herb-infused meat—and she looked triumphant standing upright on the table, surrounded by dumplings and gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce. There was crab too, of course. It came as a pre-dessert of sorts, right between the main event and the pumpkin pie.

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