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25 responses to “Canvasback, King of Ducks”

  1. Phillip

    Cans seem to show up at Mendota in pretty good numbers later in the season. It can make for tricky shooting in the foggy mornings, especially when the season on these great birds is closed and you’ve got scaup flying around too.

    You up for a drive south in January?

  2. Rashad

    To be fair, doing inflation adjustments for older food prices are hard, because food used to take up a much larger share of a typical consumers income. So things usually look worse than they were. A canvasback was still probably at least the equivalent of a nice serving of filet mignon though!

  3. Jake

    Great post, didn’t know that much about the canvasback before. Was curious about the ceramics you used in the photos (great photos), the design on the plates are great. Can you share some info regarding where you got them?

  4. Holly Heyser

    Jake, thanks re the photos! I don’t know much about the plate, except that it cost $65 at an antique store. On the back, stamped in blue, is this:

    Rd No 300714

    Then there’s a stamp in the clay, not inked, that has a crown in it, but I can’t read the words. One of the most curious things about it is that around the edge, there are patterns you can see in relief, but there’s no print on them, and they don’t match the printed designs. I like that about it!

  5. deana

    Well Hank, all I can say is WOW!

    I first found you and your remarkable blog researching canvasbacks (and you were so generous with sharing your remarkable knowledge about game) and have been dying to try one ever since. They are legendary… like finding a unicorn next to your pond… and you did!

    I keep meaning to put the word out to an East coast hunter (followed by a dinner invite of course) to share one… especially from down south a little way….. after a lunch on that wild celery.

    I hope you used that ancient madeira with this baby…it deserved the best in that sauce! Thanks for sharing the remarkable experience.

  6. Kendra Bailey Morris

    My neighbor is a big duck hunter, and I know he gets quite a few each season (not sure if Canvasbacks or not). Might have to hit him up for some just so I can try this recipe!


  7. Peter Arnold

    Like you, Hank, I like ducks rare – but not as rare as a lot of people back in the Cheapeake Bay region do. A friend from back there told me that when he was a kid and canvasback came on his grandfather’s table, the meat a quarter to a half inch under the crisp skin was still almost purple in color and jelly-like in cosistency. I wonderif it was even warm? But it was considered the best of the best, just as you say.

    I wouldn’t doubt that I have shot my last can, but I hope not. Their wings often make a sound like ripping silk as they sweep by. Are they afer fast!

  8. Dave

    We’re about eighty miles east of the canvasbacks’ known migration route (down the Hudson River), so I’ve only seen a few of them taken over the years. Despite the fairly low odds of success, I’ve had a friend carve of few cans that are now part of my broadbill rig. Maybe this will be the year I get lucky…fingers crossed, cause I’d sure love to try your recipe.

  9. Maia Brindley Nilsson

    I don’t know that I will ever have the chance to try a canvasback. Perhaps only if I’m lucky enough to be back home during duck season and my brother is lucky enough to shoot one. But aside from that, I LOVE that you revived a historical recipe and shared it. Simply fascinating. Thank you for such a thorough post about the duck and its history, recipe included.

  10. Mark Coleman

    We call those ‘grit cakes’ around here and they’re one of my favorites. At our home we’ll take leftoverbreakfast grits and pour them onto a cooking sheet, let them sit and cool, then cut and fry them for lunch.

  11. Mike Spies

    Hank, I used to shoot on the South Bay from a open water rig with 6 to 10 dozen can dekes. I bagged a few… more than a few, actually. It was a great deal of work to launch. motor out, set up, anchor to get a chance at the cans. But it was always worth it. The king of ducks for sure.

    For a treat, try a classic canvasback terrine en croute. For some years I did this every December for holiday consumption. As you say, the canvasback deserves the very best.

    Merry Christmas.

  12. mike rivera

    I just got my first two Canvasbacks this last week and am even more excited after this article to roast the drake whole. The hen i have already broken down and cooked the breast. What a great flavor. What do you think about a brine to season all the way through? Sacrilege? Anyway, love the article. Keep the waterfowl recipes coming. Mike.

  13. Chris Paredes


    I hunted Cans over 40 years ago in the California Delta. Being the fastest flying of all the ducks, they seemed like a formantion of SR71’s roaring low over the deeks. With their distinctive sloped head and high speed flying they were easily identifiable. Many times they would slip by before you could get the shotgun to your shoulder, but they would usually swing around to give the deeks a second look. When that happens I would pick out the drake. Given their low numbers, I am just a little bummed that you shot the hen. In the last 25 years, I have made it a practice to let them pass by untouched and would just marvel at their winged grace.

    Also,for that one special bird that seems to have the perfect plummage and would look great mounted, there is a way to extract the body for consumption and leave the rest in good order for a taxidermist. I have done it though it is a little hassle. A local taxidermist would be happy to demonstrate the procedure with the expectation of future business.

  14. Terry Borges

    Dare Hank,
    What a great article and tribute to this majestic bird. I believe I read once that these birds got their common name back in the market gunning days. The restaurants, and their patrons, preferred the flavor of these birds over all other fowl, so were in great demand, and commanded a higher price by the commercial hunters at the time. These birds were separated from the rest and placed in canvas bags for delivery to the local restaurants. The market gunners began having demand that exceeded supply of these transportable delivery sacks so started writing “CANVAS BACK” on these bags along with their name, and would pick these up when they made their next delivery. The name canvasback eventually caught on as a result.
    A week ago I was lucky enough to harvest two bull cans over a long weekend hunt. These are the first cans I have taken in probably twenty years. I will honor these two birds, with your graciously provided recipe, on this year’s Thanksgiving dinner table. Thank You!

  15. James S

    I have had the privelage to shoot many canvasbacks this year, and been lucky enough that a few friends don’t keep their birds very often so I have ample Cans in my freezer right now.

    Last night my friend John prepared 4 Cans in the method you described above. 3 couples enjoyed them immensly. There was not much left when all was said and done.

    I can see why the Canvasback has been described as “The Kind of Duck”. The meat was juicy and full of fat, gamey in flavor but nothing overwhelming. The sauce really tied the dish together, it paired perfectly with the rare duck and the polenta.

    At any rate, thank you Hank for the time in writing this article and receipe for without it I would have never been able to enjoy something so magnificent and classic.

  16. Wild Duck, Cabbage, Fried Hominy and Red Wine Beet Sauce « Oven-Dried Tomatoes

    […] parts. The hominy cakes are another direct rip off from Hank Shaw where he also pairs it with duck, canvasback to be exact. I followed Hank’s recipe verbatim and it worked perfectly. The grits cakes held together and […]

  17. James

    I’ve been fascinated by some of the really strange (or at least, different) things you see on menus from just 100 years ago. So different from our corporate-driven culture (sorry if that came off hipster-ish). Radishes and sardines instead of quesadillas and mozzarella sticks, frostfish instead of mahi mahi, and every manner of obscure wild bird in place of the ubiquitous chicken. For example wading birds with long legs. If we think of those it would never even cross our minds to wonder what they taste like. And who knew that apparently clams and oysters were such a given they were at the very top of just about every single menu. Anyway, kudos for the recreation!

  18. Les Lanier

    I enjoyed your article. I’ve hunted canvasbacks on Coos Bay, Oregon for years. They eat mainly small clams in the bay, but their flavor is excellent – the best. However, years ago (in the 60’s) I made a rule I still keep. I won’t shoot a hen canvasback – only drakes. Their breeding population needs all the help we can give it. Besides, hen canvasbacks are too trusting and too cute to shoot. By the way, I carve my hunting decoys out of red cedar. I presently have about 30 Cans, but my goal is at least 50. That would make a pretty nice spread.

    Les Lanier

  19. RC

    Here in Michigan, we are blessed with a strong canvasback flyway. I’ve been cooking, rendering fat, flanning livers, and fly tying everything the can has to offer for years. But never even heard of anyone eating the skin!

    I noticed in your before photo, that you left the skin on when plating up. In the after photo, nothing left but a bone.

    Am I to surmise that you devoured the skin too? If so, is it the super hot oven that makes the difference?

    For that matter, I wonder what else can be done with the skin? I’d hate to think that I’ve been missing out on yet another “best part”…

  20. Tony

    I too hail from the mitten state and man alive do we get cans! Although I have tried a similar recipe I didn’t like the red currant sauce that came with. I am lucky to have a few cans in the freezer so I am going to try your version. Also on a side note I just used your smoked duck recipe with cans, I ended up brining for two and a half days(not sure if that was a bad thing or not) because of the past few days weather being in the -5 range during the day . But it did come out awesome , did 1 maple glazed and 1 rubbed w Cajun seasoning. RC if you have a smoker try that recipe the skin end of the meat is so flavorful it’s unreal!

  21. Capt Benjie Stansky

    We just returned from a hunt on the Miles River, St Michaels MD; where we plan to hunt Cans when it gets right. The article was really enjoyable and I can’t help but remembering my neighbor Mr. Boyd who was raised in Havre de Grace, MD where his family owned the Hanover House and served many a canvasback diner on Sunday afternoon family style and I do recall him telling me about bowls of mashed potatoes and cornbread, also green pea soup but no cakes. We’ll give it a try since it sure sounds good.

  22. Makayla

    Hello Hank,

    My husband and I love your recipes! However, we recently learned of an egg allergy in the house and we’re curious what you’d suggest using for a substitute while cooking ducks/other wild game. Thanks so much for all of your sharing!!!

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