Rediscovering a worldwide favorite
In a small northeast Washington field, a flock of 34 Ancona ducks—a white breed with distinct, mottled feathers—quack sociably as they waddle around Rebecca Cahill Kemmer’s farm. Sometimes they drop eggs while they follow their guardian geese and gobble up old apples and remnants of summer squash.
Cahill Kemmer and her husband Eric Kemmer started their Pend Oreille County farm, in Fertile Valley just north of Spokane County, in 2013, with education and assistance from WSU Extension’s small farms team. When they chose livestock, ducks were a natural choice.
“They’re very hardy,” says Cahill Kemmer. “Last winter, they liked to sit out in the snow instead of their shelter. And it’s harder to find duck eggs and meat in the store.”
Cahill Kemmer’s flock is not an exception. Adaptable and tough, ducks range from the Arctic tundra to tropical rain forests, isolated cold islands off Antarctica to suburban ponds. They’re omnivorous in the broadest sense, eating almost anything and earning the nickname “pigs of the bird world.” Their bills act as extremely effective sieves with horny plates to filter food and sensitive taste buds to determine if it is edible, even in mud and cloudy water. They also have a field of vision of nearly 340 degrees, can simultaneously see both near and far, and can see in color.
As waterfowl, ducks depend on a second layer of feathers to stay warm. They also resist cold with their webbed feet, which lack nerves or blood vessels. To dry off, ducks preen in a ritual to remove grime while also spreading a waterproof oil from their uropygial gland.
Humans have raised ducks for beauty and food since at least 2,000 BCE, where records show the waterfowl were fattened in ancient China for their meat. Ducks were raised in Egypt and Rome, and Christopher Columbus wrote about flocks of large ducks kept by natives on Caribbean islands.
Ornamental ducks, wild and domesticated, have graced art from Japan to the Netherlands. It’s not a surprise, with their colorful plumage, often reflected in their monikers: blue-winged teal, canvasback, harlequin, red-breasted merganser, Barrow’s goldeneye, to name a few species.
Utility ducks—those kept for meat, eggs, and downy feathers—all descend from the same species, Anas domesticus, and were crossbred for certain traits. They are distinguished in one way by their feeding method: “dabbling” ducks forage in water and on land, “diving” ducks find food almost exclusively by diving to the bottom of ponds or other bodies of water.
Another distinguishing characteristic is size. Like boxers, ducks can range from heavyweight down to bantamweight. Cahill Kemmer’s flock of Anconas are mediumweight, smaller than common Pekin ducks but they grow faster. Duck expert Dave Holderread writes that Anconas are also prolific egg layers and excellent foragers.
Ducks have worked their way into our idioms—sitting duck, lame duck, ducks in a row—and our pop culture—Donald Duck, Howard the Duck, The Sopranos, even another Pac-12 mascot. They haven’t established themselves on the modern American plate, however.
Jamie Callison, WSU executive chef and author of The Crimson Spoon cookbook, encourages people to try cooking duck, maybe for the holidays, and not be intimidated. “You have to cook without fear. Try something unique; think about serving duck with some glazed carrots with a bit of honey, and you’ll get rewarded.”
Cahill Kemmer says cost can be a problem, increased by processing. “A USDA processor is required and it’s an hour and a half to the nearest processor,” she says. They sell on the farm and at farmers markets.
Unlike the United States, people in other countries regularly consume duck meat and eggs. They used to be more common in this country as well; WSC Extension bulletins from the early twentieth century offer instruction on raising the birds, recipes to smoke or cook duck, and tips on hunting.
Cahill Kemmer points out that wild ducks do tend to taste gamier, since they eat more worms and slugs. A well-rounded diet for a pastured duck improves the flavor, and the meat is still richer than other poultry. Cahill Kemmer even feeds fermented grains to her ducks for probiotic benefits.
Her family, including her five-year-old daughter Julianna, loves the large, rich eggs from the ducks. Higher in protein, iron, and Omega-3 fat than chicken eggs, duck eggs are also a preferred ingredient for pastries and desserts.
Callison says duck cooked low and slow, with something acidic like a citrus sauce to cut the fat, is a favorite food. He serves duck, fat rendered off, with a hardy grain, such as barley or forbidden rice, to balance the rich meat.