Crosswinds: Picked Clean

The author reflects on the simple pleasure of plucking a fat duck for the table

© Michael Furtman

We sit in the kitchen of the Maine cottage, trash cans between our knees, too tired to carry on the meagerest conversation. An all-day hunt, a long drive up the coast, and a pile of ducks on the counter. It’s time to get to work, and no matter that it’s closing in on midnight.

I pick up a brute of a mallard drake and set to the task. I hold the duck in the palm of my left hand, grab a wad of breast feathers between the thumb and forefinger of my right, and strip towards the neck. It’s not that complicated. And it’s that first pull that tells you what you’re in for. Each grab and yank on my greenhead reveals a growing swath of pink-orange skin, cleanly plucked, with hardly a smidge of down left behind. Nearby, my buddy wrestles with a black duck riddled with pinfeathers. He has his work cut out for him. It’s the luck of the draw.

I don’t pluck all of my ducks, but I’m plucking more of them more often. Maybe it’s due to my obsession with a perfectly seared duck breast. Maybe it’s because I want the hunt to last just a bit longer. Maybe it’s because I’m increasing loathe to waste any part of a bird or animal. So, I pluck. Me and a glass of whiskey. I’ve tried the other methods, namely the cold/hot water bath and the hot paraffin wax spa treatment. They work, but I’ve come to appreciate—note that I did not say “love”—the intimacy of hand-plucking a big puddle duck.

“Whoa, look at that fat,” I mutter, almost to myself. The pebbled skin is stretched taut over a thick layer of cream-colored fat. This bird could have laid on the groceries as far away as the boreal wilds of Quebec, or as nearby as a midriver island in the Kennebec. I finish the breast and pluck the back and then the legs and it’s not so bad after all. At least not until duck number 6 and a cramp in my thumb that I can’t seem to rub out.

There are waders to dry out and duck packs to unload. But all that can wait. Right now, I hold a chunk of wild Maine in the palm of my hand and the woodstove putters and the flames dance and the ice in the cocktail glass could use another shot. And the feathers fly. The hunt is never really over until the feathers fly.