What the Duck: Why Do Duck Breeds Get Short Shrift?
Even eaters who dine out only on special occasions have typically been exposed to Berkshire pork and Waygu beef. But when it comes to duck, few restaurants bother to reveal which breed they're serving.
"Every time I see duck on the menu, it just says duck," says Ted Hill, co-chair of the Dallas chapter of Ducks Unlimited. "I have no idea why. Most duck hunters think certain ducks are better to eat than others."
Decades ago, it wasn't unusual to find specific duck breeds referenced on high-end menus: Restaurants tried to tantalize customers with canvasback ducks and mallard duck served with watercress and currant jelly. But that practice has largely dissipated; here in North Texas -- an epicenter of duck diversity, situated at the near-convergence of two major flyways -- The Mansion's menu describes its popular "Flavors of Duck" entrée as featuring "crispy duck confit" and "duck breast."
Most restaurants serve white pekin, or Long Island duck, a relative of the mallard imported from China in 1873. Yet many other breeds make for good eating, as H.T. Payne related in his story "Game Birds of the Pacific," published in Sunset Magazine in 1908.
"When we came into the house after our morning shoot, a most enjoyable one, (Mr. Babcock) asked each member of the party what kind of duck he wished for his dinner," Payne wrote. "Mallards, canvasbacks, sprigs and widgeons had been named."
Payne deferred the selection to his host, who plated a pair of ruddy ducks, a bird then commonly slighted for its size and propensity to overindulge on salt water. Payne discovered the duck, properly cooked, tasted better than any other breed he'd ever tried: "There was nothing left of my two birds but well-picked bones," he wrote.
While restaurants don't have the option of serving just-killed game, white pekins aren't the only commercially available ducks: Many of the 40-plus duck breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association, including Muscovys, moulards and mallards are bred for sale.
Hill says his friends like pintails and wood ducks, although he's agnostic on the topic.
"The two ways I prefer it is diced up in gumbo, or on a skewer in an Asian style," Hill says. "I don't eat duck that much."