Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Planes, Terranes and Organic — A Duck Hunter’s Diary

I boarded the plane making my way through the narrow aisles with my carry-on and cooler in tow. Trying not to anger all the other frustrated passengers, I arrived at the back of the plane. I happily threw my suitcase filled with four days of dirty clothes in the compartment above my head, saving myself $25 in luggage fees. I shoved the cooler under the seat and sat down to recollect the last four days of bliss when the stewardess asked how the fishing was?
I was perplexed, “Fishing?” Then I thought maybe the scruffy four days of unkempt facial hair and the camouflage jacket was the giveaway. I replied, “No I was in Louisiana, hunting ducks.” Her eyes turned sad. Her finely plucked eyebrows furrowed and her welcome aboard smile turned to a frown. “Why? What did the ducks do to you?” she asked. Trying to raise her spirits, considering I was going to rely on her for my limited selection of food and beverage for the next two hours, I tried to justify my perceived mass genocide of the bird population. I calmly told her we used slingshots. That seemed to quell the mass hysteria of gun control debates I could see swirling in her head. I directed her back to the conversation of food and asked her what she eats. Before she could answer, I rattled off the major farm animals, chicken, beef and pork. All were answered with a no.
I had found myself face to face with a vegetarian. At first I was nervous, considering I was dressed in her favorite food group. Then she mentioned fish. I asked, “What did the fish do to you?” She laughed, knowing full well the conversation was going to be entertaining and thoughtful. Since she couldn’t think of one instance where a fish harmed her, I continued the conversation regarding my means of procuring organic protein.
If you eat something on that plate, it had to have lived somewhere and it ended up dead on your plate. My meal is more than that. My meal is an experience filled with contemplative thought, friendship, stewardship and the satisfaction that I know where my meal came from. My “food” started in Waterproof, Louisiana a few hours north of New Orleans on 800 acres of woods, bayous and a lake. For help with the procuring process, I had my Dad and a fellow friend fly with me to visit our friendly “organic farmer.” Not only a farmer, he is the owner of a beautiful little piece of America. As a friend of five years, I appreciate the time he spends feeding, cultivating and ensuring a healthy habitat for these passing aviary culinary delights.

The next three days would be spent waking up at some ungodly hour before the sun casts its first warming rays. While fully dressed in the stewardesses favorite food, we would nestle ourselves in a small hut waiting for up to seven hours to fulfill our limit of six feathered friends.
One might consider this boring or compare it to watching paint dry. I think not. Artists have tried to capture the vastness and grandeur of a glowing ball of fire cresting over the horizon to bring warmth and light. I get to experience the slowness of this event for the next three mornings.
Within the first moments, the glow is filled with ducks speeding to their next destination. Some fly sporadically high, other fly low or are structured in a V formation. The sight reminds me of World War II movies with the mass amounts of bombers heading to Europe for victory. Unlike the bombers, ducks fly this route every year and have been for the past hundred years. We sometimes waited in silence soaking up the grandness of it all or in conversation retelling adventures of procuring and gathering. The sun finally reveals its light. It dances and sparkles across the water. Plastic forms of floating ducks break up the dance. Then it happens.
Duck HuntingTwo out of the thousands of ducks that make their journey down the Mississippi Delta, decide to rest in our flock of plastic silhouettes. Patience and travel have paid off. Now it is up to me to put food on the table. Success is now resting in the center of the circular ripples.
The plane’s engines start to roar and everyone quickly sends their last text; then puts their personal electronics in the off position.
I think of the possibilities for my feathered friends at my feet: roasted, smoked, braised, basted or salted. The possibilities are endless and then the thought of side dishes and beverages! Yes … I’ll have beverages, better known as in-flight cocktails. The small bag of six peanuts and the $8 beer doesn’t cure my hunger or stop the mouthwatering thoughts of how I’m going to cook my organic poultry.
One of my favorite dishes is a smoked duck and pecan pate. It doesn’t get more southern than this. The process makes three days sitting in a hut waiting, seem like short and easy work. The petit pate takes a week to make. The ducks must be undressed of their plumage, which is no easy task. Then the naked duck needs to be soaked in brine for a few days. The local grocery store doesn’t carry brine but they do carry all the necessary fresh ingredients to make it from cider vinegar to apple juice to herbs to oranges. I am not skimping here.
Like I said, this is farm-fresh to table, no MSG or hard to pronounce chemical compounds. Once the meat has soaked and becomes full of flavor and tender, it’s time to smoke. Four hours of apple wood chips smoldering below causes billowing smoke to wrap around the breasts keeping the juicy goodness inside. Cooked and deboned, this tender scrumptious meat is mixed with pecans, sautéed mushrooms, Louisiana hot sauce and fresh herbs. Wait, there is more!
It needs a binder, which is no other than the heart stopping goodness that is mayonnaise. Don’t think that after watching sunrises and being personally accosted in airport security, that I’m grabbing a jar of Miracle Whip. Nope, I’m using the finest eggs from the chickens we have in the backyard and 2 cups of oil (that I didn’t make) and some freshly squeezed lemon juice and a dollop of mustard. The KitchenAid blender is ready to make chemistry come to life, better known as emulsifying. This is a wild and crazy process that’s fairly easy. The only requirement is patience. BAM! I have fresh mayonnaise to add to my mixture. All this hard work doesn’t end with a scoop of pate on a plate. All is packed into little molds to set, and then be distributed.
The time spent procuring is just half of the experience. It is a time for bonding with friends, gathering your thoughts and appreciating nature, taking notice of the minutes that fill an hour. The quietness of 800 acres without a road, a car or a building in sight causes one to become aware of their smallness. The second half of the whole experience is sharing small gestures of gratitude. My gratitude is in the form of little dome shaped molds of smoked duck pate that I share with friends. Nothing makes one more welcome than showing up at your friend’s house bearing food. I haven’t been turned down yet when I make a call with some freshly made food.
Schaller's Kids Love Duck PateThe captain’s voice snaps me from my gastronomical daydream, time to power down our personal electronics. This was a quicker journey than my feathered friends make, but they leave a smaller carbon footprint. My friendly stewardess makes her way to the back of the plane, insuring all the seats are in their upright positions. She glances at the cooler, making sure nothing has escaped, and smiles.
Seatbelts are fastened and I feel as safe as anyone speeding through the air at over 500 miles an hour with a nylon belt strapped around their waist. Since the stewardess is also strapped in, and my need for her service has come to an end, I continued our culinary conversation. Looking for common ground in our joys of food, I asked her what kind of wine she likes with her green crunchy friends. Her reply made me realize we weren’t even going to be Facebook friends, not even through mutual acquaintances. The answer wasn’t even a beverage of any kind, it was a statement about her last triathlon. I thought gathering food was a sport. If done well you can even turn it into a three course meal.