In the winter of 2007, my wife Beni began experiencing almost daily migraines. She had tried cutting out such commonly-assumed villains as chocolate and red wine, but nothing seemed to work. So we decided to make a frontal attack on this debilitating illness. Over several months, consulting a local osteopathic neurologist and a doctor specializing in food allergies, we discovered multiple triggers, both behavioral and dietary. One of the foods she had to give up turned out to be eggs. Well, chicken eggs.
Thus began our search for duck eggs (there is a subtly different protein in the albumen). We finally turned to an old friend from our restaurant days, Marilyn Kelly of Seaside Herbs, who had three laying hens and a drake. For a year she kept us supplied -- sometimes a dozen eggs a week, sometimes fewer. Some birds lay a set number of eggs a year, but ducks, with a little encouragement and the right feed, keep on producing. Because in nature, if an egg is lost or stolen, the hen will instinctively lay another to take its place. Egg farming depends on this powerful instinct.
Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs, with more yolk to white and higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, protein and fat. That extra fat gives custards a silky and unctuous taste. Whisked with a bit of heavy cream, they make perfect omelets, frittatas and scrambles. The extra protein in duck egg whites can cause them to turn rubbery when fried on a hot griddle; gentle cooking -- poaching or sautéing -- works best.
Just when we were getting comfortable, however, Marilyn decided, after 25 years, she'd had enough. No more poultry! But Marilyn, what about us? Well, she said, if you want ’em, you can have ’em. So we called Andrew Norton, who has never seen a project he couldn't overwhelm with creativity. Could he build us a predator-safe hutch by the weekend? That evening he sent the plans. And shortly thereafter we were the possessors of a magnificent duck-house for Drako, Emily, Natasha and Natasha's sister. I named it "Drako's Palace O' Sin."
But the damn thing cost $600. Well, it might pay off in the long run. The next morning I collected two eggs. I brought them in, handling them gingerly (turns out they are not that easy to break). "Would you care for a scrambled $300 egg?" I asked.
Of course, as time passes, the eggs get cheaper. Probably now they're down to $5 apiece. And every week I make mayonnaise, and most weeks a quiche. The raw yolks are perfect for Caesar Salad, aioli, and steak tartare, because there's no risk of salmonella in fresh eggs immediately refrigerated. (Actually, it's highly unusual to find bacteria inside even supermarket eggs, because they have very sophisticated defense mechanisms, which make them hostile to bacterial growth. The American Egg Board estimates the likelihood of an egg containing salmonella is approximately .0005 percent.)
Ducks are fun to watch, particularly the X-rated frenzy that often follows Drako's breakfast. But ducks have always had a special place in our imaginations, more elevated than chickens and other domesticated birds (it's hard to think of a cartoon character named Chester Chicken or Tommy Turkey).
We also treat ducks as a class closer to pets, a distinction not accorded other poultry. In 2005, a mother duck picked the best place in Washington to make her nest: the hotel planter outside the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. The hotel cordoned off her nest with a velvet rope and stanchions, and provided bottled Ritz water to drink and cracked corn to eat, each served in a silver Ritz bowl. The bartender created a special cocktail in her honor, "The Duck Duck Goose" -- Grey Goose L'orange, pineapple juice, splash of Grenadine, splash of Sprite. Security guards periodically checked the nest until the eggs hatched, and then drove mother and ducklings back to the Potomac River in a limo. I can't imagine so much fuss being made over a chicken.
Being a duck rancher (ahem) -- and observing how ducks eat -- has also given me a different perspective on PETA's radical vegan agenda to deny all use of animals by humans, especially that strange proposition that they managed to get passed in California, banishing foie gras from both farms and menus. Based on the actions of a small percentage of the industry, PETA demonized the fattening of all ducks and geese.
Their TV commercial on "force-feeding" has footage that I have no doubt is legit. Abuse of ducks, or for that matter any food animal, is unacceptable to anyone. But it nearly always occurs in commodity-food factories, not with small producers. I have seen equally legitimate footage of a foie gras farm where the process is not assembly-lined, but humane. The ducks eagerly flock into the feeding shed to gorge (they will happily eat until they burst, all on their own).
The fact is, artificial fattening has been practiced since ancient Egypt, and its likely origin is simple: Ducks are gluttons. And what's wrong with that? They are food animals. Most of them are going to be slaughtered. Why not let them live their last days in Duck Heaven?
Our own ducks expect regular snacks to supplement their grain and critter diet, and complain bitterly when they are not forthcoming. Friends say, "Oh, how cute! They're quacking at you," but what they're really saying is, "Snack. Snack-snack-snack. Snack-snack." After their evening feeding, they gather around the kiddie-pool and skim bugs off the surface. Their part of our yard, of course, is slug-free. They eat animals. They wouldn't, I think, share PETA's militant all-vegan world stance.
Alas, this is not a topic I can debate with Drako and his harem. They're too busy bitching about not getting enough food.