“Mrs. Safer, Do you like ducks?” my adorable third-grade student asked as class was dismissed on a November Friday in 1962.
“Oh, yes,” I replied, recalling my many hours spent feeding the ducks and geese and riding the swan boats in Boston Common where I had grown up.
“I mean to eat,” she said, as if she had read my mind. “My dad is going hunting, and I could bring you some for dinner.”
“That would be wonderful,” I replied, thinking of my Chinese dinners of Peking duck and the roast duck at French restaurants.
My parents were coming for a long-awaited visit to Houston, where I was teaching public school. It would be their first time to see our apartment, a cute two-bedroom in a small 10-unit, two-level apartment complex owned and run by a wealthy native who took us under her wing. The kitchen was a small galley that could hold only one person, but to me it seemed grand. I was just learning to cook. We had two tiny bedrooms and unit air conditioning and were just across the street from Rice University, where my husband taught economics.
We took my folks on the usual tours of the campus and the city, and they treated us to dinner out.
On Monday morning, my student told me, “Mommy is going to pick me up today and bring you a present.”
“That will be great, Lucy,” I said and went on with the lessons.
As promised, the mom arrived, with a cooler.
“Lucy said you would like these,” she said.
Inside the cooler lay two dead wild ducks: heads, feathers, buckshot and all.
“How wonderful,” I gushed. “We will have a lovely dinner. Thank your husband very much.”
I smiled, took the cooler home and wondered what to do next. I was heartened by the fact that my mom would be there to guide me.
But my mom took one look, and like the city girl she was, said, “I’ve never made duck. What do we do about the feathers?”
“I guess we pull them out,” I replied as I changed into jeans and put on an apron.
“Let’s pluck them in the kitchen,” I said, pulling two chairs into the galley with the ducks, two large bowls and a pail.
My Joy of Cooking spoke only of roasting ducks. It did not offer suggestions on how to clean or pluck them. We could have used some advice. The Internet could have saved us, if it had been today.
So we pulled out the feathers, which would not stay in the pail but floated around us, filling the air like fluffy clouds.
Mom began to giggle at the sight of the two of us, covered with feathers, uncovering those two scrawny wild ducks filled with buckshot, which we did not know how to remove. We sat together and laughed and laughed and laughed, having a grand time sharing our ignorance and the mess.
Yes, we did stuff and roast the two skinny birds, which had to be basted often with butter. They never did get tender. They were tough and chewy, and we had to be careful not to bite into the buckshot. Thank goodness for the lovely wild rice and the vegetable casserole we had made for the meal.
Later we found that we should have immersed our ducks in boiling water to loosen the feathers and keep them from flying around.
My next duck would be farm-raised, plucked and ready for the oven. But duck would never again be as much fun as the dinner Mom and I prepared in that tiny kitchen, laughing as feathers flew around us.