Friday, March 31, 2017

Canard á l’Orange

    Chicken, steak, fish panfried and drowned in tartare sauce, interspersed with toaster-oven pizzas or spaghetti and pennies saved. Vegetables followed seasons. There was plenty. Our ups and downs were not about food. Still, the occasional exotic dish felt inexplicable and disgusting. Calves liver, cow’s tongue, and boiled flanken with barley I interpreted as hostility. There was no place allowing my mother pleasure in anything other than what I approved.  
    I traveled by subway and bus downtown to junior high, crosstown for the orthodontist. What was important was staying up late to watch Laugh-In, or that on Thursdays after drama class my friend Julie and I would go all by ourselves to Blimpies for a hero topped  with shredded iceberg , pickled jalapeños and mayonnaise. 
     Week-ends were for sleepovers. I don’t remember the meals at my friends houses or what they ate at mine but I do remember our giggly caresses as we played ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ under the covers during long sleepless nights, drifting off, then waking near noon for French toast and bacon smothered in Log Cabin syrup.
     What changed my world was the Canard á l’Orange from a restaurant called The Library. We'd pass from the familiar lights of Broadway through a forest of fern overhanging the heavy wooden door. We’d navigate past a long dark bar to the backroom which was a maze of bookshelves holding real books. Tables were tucked between the books. We’d pick a table, pick a book, read out loud. It was a treat, the whole thing, every part. 
     How did I love thee? Mahogany, shatteringly crisp skin taught over melting flesh. Sticky sweet glaze and salty fat soiling eager fingers and lips. Gilded, elegant, French; everything my mother was not. She never made duck. With its lousy bone to meat ratio and abundant fat it was not something it would've occurred to her, to us, you could make at home. 
     It wasn’t till much later, when I’d moved downtown after college that I’d stride with bravado to the butcher shop to ask for duck. At that time ‘New American’ and lite were all the rage and I switched allegiance to barely seared Magret breasts lacquered with star anise glaze, or  infused with lemon and thyme. I fancied myself a connoisseur forgetting ducks migrate only to fly back home. My lavish cooking might not be as different as I thought from my mother’s liver or pot au feu. Maybe, maybe when she made these things it was a throwback to her mother’s cooking, but just as likely she was trying something new. Maybe she had passions and hunger. Maybe she was having fun. I am only considering these possibilities now that she is gone. 
     When she died I started cooking her food as a way to remember. I gravitated towards dishes from when she was the center of my life. I needed to feel her close. I fell for Canard á l’Orange at the cusp of adolescence. It was not the Vindaloo or platanos maduros and cafe con leche that I preferred during full on teen-aged rebellion, the duck had heralded only the start of that long push away. That it’s in my mind now is fitting. My mother is gone a year. She is slipping from my grasp. The things I never got to know and didn’t think to ask, things I have forgotten, the things that won’t happen or will happen but without her weigh heavier then she herself.
     I went out and bought a duck, available as if it were nothing special at the Key Food down the street.That duck and I slow-danced griefs’ stages; denial it was in the fridge, regret I had bought it, anger that if I didn’t get it cooked it would go bad. It was the thought of dousing the duck with all that sweetness that slowed me down and tripped me up. What was it I had liked anyway, why bring back something so long gone? Taste and memory and the person remembering changes. What is remembered isn’t necessarily what was, sometimes it is just a wish. After a week in the fridge when it was just on the edge I cut off the duck’s legs and stuck them in the freezer. I boiled the carcass and made soup.
     Later I bought another duck, cut it in half, added one leg to the legs in the freezer, defrosted the old breast and added it to the new breast to quickly sauté. The other whole half of the duck I pricked with a knife to release the fat and while it roasted skimmed half a dozen recipes for sauce. Concentrate or freshly squeezed juice and julienned zest simmered with way too much brown or white sugar, or honey, sherry vinegar or cider vinegar, Grand Marnier or marmalade. Once the dish was the sexiest I’d tasted then it became quaint, now it seems lurid. 
    Everything changes. Pieces are missing. There is no one to ask. Grief arrives regularly but what am I grieving? What is it I long for? A token really, I’d like to hear my mother say my name. 
     Busyness is soothing. Cooking recalls the past but requires attention now. At supper the crisp meltingly tender half lay by a rosy breast, au naturel, the orange sauce abandoned to memory, the meal a map, history made better having been stripped bare.   


  1. The Library! I remember their duck breast too - also at the little UWS bistro closer to home called Under the Stairs. Food and memory are such a powerful combination when you mix them up in your blog and kitchen Ame!

    1. thanks Joe. I almost didn't write the name of the restaurant but then figured it would be a fun memory jog for old UWS peeps.

  2. Beautifully written!! I will have to try making it.

  3. thanks Shalini. Add your own touch to the spices in the sous vide bag if you give it a try... and let me know how it comes out!

  4. This is good. The ideas of difference, separation, identity linked to the duck. I will read it again.