Duck Dinner Recap: A Brief History of Duck Culture on Long Island

Avid readers will know that we’ve had ducks on the brain lately. This obsession culminated with the duck-and-red-wine dinner at Almond restaurant last week which featured an endlessly creative menu from chef Jason Weiner (from duck pastrami and duck dashi to Concord grape and peanut butter mousse for dessert), but also a fair share of duck ringtone interruptions. (We’re in good company: President Obama was interrupted by a phone quacking (!) when he was announcing progress on gay marriage last year.) We started with Negronis mixed with Channing Daughters Winery’s new VerVino vermouth, ended with Paumanok’s dessert rose, and paired each course with a bold cab franc, merlot or red blend. And in between, I shared some excerpts from Edible East End‘s writing on the proud history of duck raising on Long Island, where America’s duck industry was born.

Below you can see the wine-stained menu in full, and also read through the full transcript of my remarks.


The menu was an homage to ducks and the many ways they can be cooked. Not to mention how well they go with red wine.

Brian Halweil’s unedited duck dinner remarks.

The Parrish Art Museum has an installation up right now as part of its Artists Choose Artists exhibit and it’s all about two ducks. Tucker Marder raised two heritage ducklings, A Blue Swedish and a Buff Indian Runner, from egg to maturity.  (Watch him describe the project here.) He photographed them each day, school portrait style and then framed the images and assembled them on a giant mantle as a proud parent might do. He also sewed a stuffed animal version of both ducks and a hook rug scene with them in it. Tucker said that the piece symbolized the care-giving that a parent gives to a child or a duck farmer gives to a duck.

So, why ducks? In full disclosure, Sarah and I raise a few heritage laying ducks. We have black and blue Cayugas, Khaki Campbells, one Khaki Indian Runner and our latest acquisition, Golden 300 Layers from Metzer Farms in Gonzalez, California. And why do we love ducks? They are one of the most versatile and useful of all domsestic fowl. They are easy to raise. Hardy and disease resistant. Their thick coats of well-oiled feathers mean they are comfortable in the worst weather conditions, even without shelter. They are avid foragers who can rid ponds of weeds and mosquito larvae and remove slugs and grubs and other pests from gardens. Their fatty meat is more flavorful than chicken. The best laying varietis of ducks lay as many eggs as the best laying varities of chickens. Plus, the duck eggs are bigger. Ducks have feathers that can be made into pillows and down comforters, meaning that the more utilitarian varieities of duck are considered triple purpose, meaning they yield eggs, meat and feathers. That’s not something most animals can do. And, in a future with more eratic weather events, extreme rainfall, flooding and sea level rise, ducks can cope in a way that chickesn can’t. Which makes me think their future is bright.

Yes, we have a rich duck history on the East End and we are coming into prime duck season. I wanted to read excerpts from two stories in Edible East End that convey a sense of this history and the appeal of ducks.

From an article by Eileen Duffy an exhibit about ducks at the Westhampton Historical Society.

Just over the railroad tracks in Eastport there’s a mailbox with a duck on it. It’s in front of a white clapboard house not much different from the others on Railroad Avenue. But take a right down the dirt driveway past the old tractors and barns, and one of Long Island’s last duck farms spreads out in front of you like a scene from Old MacDonald’s. There’s a pond, low-slung duck houses, large shade trees and flocks of white Pekin ducks, the breed that once made Long Island synonymous with the dark, fat-crusted poultry served in big city restaurants, fancy boarding houses and Chinatowns coast to coast for near the entirety of the 20th century.

Pekins—bred to grow fat, fast and in a range of conditions—made it to the States from China in 1873, and by 1900 there were 30 duck farms on the East End, whose moderate climate, proximity to water and sandy soil were ideal; by 1940 there were 90 in the towns of Brookhaven, Southampton and Riverhead, most bordering Moriches Bay.

While most of Long Island’s duck farms have closed, memories remain. The Indian Island Golf Course in Riverhead used to be the Hubbard Duck Farm. The Warners used to raise their ducks where the Kmart now stands. The names are familiar street names on the East End: Tuttle, Culver, Raynor, Hallock. At the beginning of the 20th century, ducks were good business.

The Westhampton Beach exhibit included old incubators, endless promotional materials, histories of the families and a newspaper article from 1902 that told the tale of the “duck girls,” the best of whom could pluck 100 chickens in 10 hours and take home five cents per duck. The human-interest angle was one “girl” who put a tag with her name and address around a plucked duck’s neck and ended up with a proposal from a big city buyer. The article states: “The majority of [the duck girls] have rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and that beauty which is an accompaniment to perfect health. A few of them are really lovely; and if rumor can be trusted, the Long Island swains consider the duck girls as perfect ducks in the most endearing sense of the word.”

From an article, with duck recipes, by Joan Bernstein, a jammaker and writer in East Moriches, about growing up on a duck farm.

By the time I was seven, I’d watched the rabbi ritually slaughter the huge white birds on our inland farm, the only kosher producer on the island, then as the ducks were dipped and plucked, airborne feathers swirling through the steaming picking house to settle on the netted hair, sweaty necks and dripping rubber aprons of the cheerful Polish women whose skills are unheard of today, stuffing feathers and down into sacks for processing at the feather plant in Eastport, speedily filling slatted wooden crates stamped “Bernstein’s Ducks.”

Uncle Sam and Dad trucked the dressed Pekin ducks into Brooklyn and lower New York, to Schmulke Bernstein’s (no relation that I know of) and to the Mott Street Chinese restaurants. Bloodless kosher ducks sold at a premium for Pekin Duck.

Mom roasted ducks a pair at a time for our family of two adults and three young daughters. Neighborhood pets joined our own cats and dogs with eagerly twitching noses and whiskers sniffing the aromatics wafting through the kitchen door, across the screened back porch, awaiting the scraps once we’d finished eating the crispy, thinly fatted spice-pungent skin, the moist, dark roasted meat and chewed the last tender strand from the bones.