“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.
And while a mounted can is a beautiful thing, my trophies are at the table.
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.