“Get ready, here they come!” My friend RJ hissed as two ducks came roaring in over our flooded rice field, right over our decoys.
I saw them just in time. Two big ducks, flying in fast, coming right to left. I was on the far right of the blind, so I waited until they were broadside to the blind. I focused on the trailing bird. “Now!” RJ shouted, and we let fly. I dropped the trailing bird, RJ’s friend Jim dropped the lead bird.
Riley the Dog leaped off the rice check into the water and soon returned with my bird, which I’d thought was a hen mallard. But as Riley swam closer, I saw the unmistakable aristocratic bill of a hen canvasback. “Canvasbacks!” I was beaming from ear to ear. Even though I shot my first specklebelly goose of the year, a mallard and two teal that day, it is the canvasback that lingers largest in my mind.
Canvasback. King of Ducks. Or in this case, Queen of Ducks.
Aythya vallisneria, the canvasback duck. Where others dream about green-headed mallard drakes or morbidly obese pintails, I dream of King Can. It’s the historian in me.
No duck has risen to a higher plane at the table than the canvasback. George Washington prized it, as did the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age and the rough-hewn voyageurs of the Canadian frontier, who traded in beaver pelts and feasted on canvasbacks. It was, for a while, the most prestigious thing anyone could put on a menu.
That prestige was won at a terrible price. Pollution from the emerging Industrial Revolution and silt from an America increasingly yoked under the plow laid waste to the submerged gardens of wild celery, sago pondweed, wapato and wigeongrass that the ducks had once relied on. This weakened the cans, and their allure on the tables of the well-to-do sparked a hunting boom that drove the birds to the brink of extinction.
The canvasback became the poster child for the movement to ban market hunting in the early 1900s. But it was already too late. Never an overly abundant duck to begin with, there are still only about 700,000 canvasbacks in North America, compared to about 8.5 million mallards. We hunters have only been allowed to take one canvasback per day for decades, and in some cases — last year being one of them — the season on canvasbacks is closed altogether. Every canvasback we get is a trophy.
If you are not a hunter, you might think that all ducks are ducks. Nothing could be further from the truth. For starters, many of the ducks we hunt do not even share the same genus, let alone share the same species. A tiny teal is as different from a mallard as a quail is to a turkey. The canvasback, which can weigh in at 3 1/2 pounds for a big drake, is among North America’s largest wild ducks. So there is quite a bit of meat on one.
Secondly, every duck species has its own preferred diet. And, given its druthers, a canvasback loves nothing more than the roots of vallisneria, the wild celery. Oddly, it does not taste like celery and is not related to the garden plant. But its roots are soft, easily digestible by the ducks, and loaded with carbohydrates. Where vallisneria lives, you will find canvasbacks. If they can’t find that, canvasbacks switch to sagittaria, also known as wapato or duck potato. These are equally loaded with carbs, but they are harder to digest. One step down are sago and wigeongrass. Finally, if pushed, canvasbacks will get all Atkins Diet and switched to a diet almost exclusively of Baltic clams.
This is what cans eat when they are in San Francisco Bay, where a quarter of all canvasbacks spend their winters. But cans can’t live on clams alone (OK, maybe they can, but it makes for a good phrase.) So we will see them inland with some frequency, roaring over big water at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge and, occasionally, in ricefields. That’s where RJ of North Wind Outfitters had invited me to hunt last week.
The hen canvasback I’d shot was pretty skinny. We’d had several days of tremendous north winds, which forces the ducks to expend far more energy than they normally would just to get from place to place. It’d be like you running everywhere you went for three days. You’d lose weight, too. We suspected that these cans were in the rice to carb up. And we were right. Her crop was full of rice, and her liver was so engorged with fat it was wild foie gras. An even rarer treat.
Diet determines flavor, but no matter what they eat, canvasbacks taste different from other ducks. Their meat is a rich crimson, their skin a pinkish buff, their fat a ghostly ivory. Earlier this fall I cooked some ducks for my friends Chris and his friend’s family while I was staying in North Dakota. They’d shot a mallard, a pintail and a canvasback. I decided to cook them all simply and not tell everyone which duck was which. Everyone agreed that the pintail was the mildest, the mallard was kinda boring, and the canvasback was the most interesting. It is “duckier” than most other species. Strong in a good way.
And our American tastebuds were more attuned to the intricacies of various meats a century ago.
A while back I wrote about how prized the now-lowly ruddy duck once was, and in flavor, a good ruddy is to a canvasback what a teal is to a pintail: Merely a smaller version of the larger, more fashionable duck. And no duck — indeed, no other animal save the terrapin or the abalone — has reached the heights of fashion of the canvasback.
Imagine the most expensive thing on a menu you can think of, excluding Cognac or rare wine. Caviar, right? A good serving of caviar at a nice restaurant might set you back $50 or more. Canvasback was once like that. A look at the century-old menus of such swanky establishments like the Waldorf Hotel in New York City shows that an order of canvasback duck would cost you $4.50 in 1907. Do a little math and that’s the equivalent of about $104 in today’s dollars. And that, most likely, is for half a duck. Wow.
Even at the market, a canvasback might cost $1.25, or the equivalent of about $32.50 in today’s dollars. Consider for a moment that the average worker in the United States earned 19 cents an hour and you realize that it would take nearly three days’ pay for that person to earn enough to order canvasback at a restaurant. King of Ducks indeed.
So how was that canvasback served at the Waldorf? As it happens, it seems that cans were such a precious item that they were served in only one way: Roasted rare, carved and served with a red currant sauce (or jelly) and a side of “fried hominy.” Always. I found nearly 40 recipes or mentions of canvasback being served, dating from 1877 to 1907 and they are all done the same way.
Clearly, I needed to recreate this recipe. First revelation: The “fried hominy” mentioned in all the old recipes is not what you think. It is not fried hominy at all, but rather cold, cooked hominy grits, cut into shapes, coated with egg and breadcrumbs and fried in lard.
Second revelation: They roasted their canvasbacks hot. I mean, HOT. Like get the oven as hot as it will go, keep it there for 20 minutes and hold on hot. None of this namby-pamby 425°F crap. Try 500°F, or even hotter. As for cooking time, every one of the old recipes had strong opinions on how long the duck should be in the oven. They ranged from 15 minutes to 30, and since I like my ducks pretty rare, I went for 18 minutes, with a 10-minute rest.
I’ve been making a sauce like the one they used for years. It is a variation of the classic Cumberland sauce, only with no flour. Frankly I like this one a little better.
The result: History on a plate. Everything went together in a harmony of rich and savory, acidic and sweet. The only thing it needed alongside was a bitter greens salad, which I will do next time I make this dish.
When that will be, I cannot say. It isn’t every day we get to bring home King Can.
Classic Roast Canvasback with Fried Hominy
There is no substitute for canvasback duck. It is a unique taste in the animal world, one you cannot replicate with a domestic duck or even another worthy wild duck, like a mallard or pintail. That is not to say you cannot do this with any of these lesser stand-ins, but be prepared to be in awe when you finally get the chance, someday, to taste the real thing.
As for the other things on this plate, white hominy grits are easily bought in much of this country, but California (where I live) is not one of them. So I use polenta instead. Any breadcrumbs are fine. For the fat I went authentic and fried the little cakes in lard, but I would only recommend this if you can get fresh-rendered lard. Never use the hydrogenated stuff that needs not be refrigerated. Use butter instead. Keep in mind you need to make the hominy a few hours ahead to let it cool.
Red currant jelly is sold in many supermarkets, but you can use any red fruit jelly really. I used chokecherry syrup from Montana, but cherry syrup or jelly would be ideal, as would cranberry jelly or syrup. You are looking for red and tart.
Serve this with a bitter green salad, dressed with a light coating of walnut oil and white wine vinegar, and serve with a big, burly red wine. This would be the time to break out the Bordeaux.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 18 minutes
- 1 cup finely ground hominy or polenta
- 5 cups water
- 1 canvasback duck or other whole duck, plucked and gutted
- 1/4 cup butter or duck fat, divided
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/3 cup red currant jelly or syrup
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup demi-glace (or 1 cup stock reduced to 1/4 cup)
- A dash of hot sauce
- Make the hominy by bringing the water and about a tablespoon of salt to a boil. Start stirring the water and pour the hominy grits into the water in a steady stream. Turn the heat to low and cook this for at least 20 minutes, and up to an hour, stirring occasionally. Turn out the grits into a loaf pan or other small, high-sided container and let cool for at least 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 500°F, or if your oven won’t get that high, as high as it will go. This would be the time to fire up the pizza oven, if you have one. Pat the canvasback dry with a paper towel and salt the inside. Smear duck fat or butter all over the bird and salt it well on the outside. Let this sit at room temperature for at least 2o minutes, while your oven heats up.
- Meanwhile, turn the cooled hominy grits out onto a cutting board and slice off the side that had been exposed to air. Cut the rest into shapes of your choice. Get a bowl with your egg ready, and another bowl for the breadcrumbs.
- Put the canvasback in an oven-proof pan — I use a cast-iron pan — and set the timer for 18 minutes. Once you do this, put the remaining butter or lard into a frying pan and heat it on medium-high. As soon as it is hot, dredge the hominy grits in egg, then the breadcrumbs and fry in the lard until golden. Set aside on a paper towel to drain.
- At the 10-minute mark of roasting, baste the canvasback with some butter or duck fat. When it is done to your liking, take the duck out, remove it from the hot pan and set it on the cutting board tented loosely with foil. A medium-rare duck will be about 18 minutes, medium 20-22, and don’t go past 25 minutes unless the canvasback is really fatty. Domestic ducks will need this extra time. Look for a temperature in the breast of about 135-140°F.
- As the duck is resting, make sure you have at least 2 tablespoons of fat in the pan you roasted the bird in. Set this on the stove over medium heat. Be careful, as the pan will be hot. Add the shallots and saute for 2 minutes, or until they begin to brown. Add the remaining sauce ingredients and any salt if needed. Bring this to a rolling boil and let it cook down until a wooden spoon dragged through it leaves a noticeable trail. You want a thick consistency, but not so much as syrup or gravy.
- Carve the canvasback (save the carcass for duck stock) and add any juices to the sauce. Pour some sauce on the plate, add a hominy cake or two and top with the duck. Serve at once.