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Couple learns complicated steps of processing ducks at Taylor farm

Ciara O'Rourke

The woman held the duckling to her ear and listened to it squeak. Then she pulled a key attached to a short string from a drawer in the backroom of Callahan's, where cages of chicks and other animals line the walls.

Watching the key swing over the fussy bird's head, she nodded, confirming the animal was a female.

I wanted two, for their creamy eggs and company. "How can you tell it's a girl?" I asked.

She didn't answer, placing the duckling in a small cardboard box before plucking another from the cage.

"Never fails," she said as the key again swung. Then she joked that she was going to jinx herself.

She did.

At home and in short order, their tail feathers curled, they charged whenever someone presumed to step in the backyard and they waddled around like the Statler and Waldorf of ducks, quacking discontentedly.

They were drakes. The creamy eggs never came. And they continued to hold court in the backyard, snapping at our ankles when we walked outside.

I was scandalized when my boyfriend, Benjamin, first suggested we slaughter them. But after a year of waffling, we were both ready to return the ducks from whence they came.

We wanted to experience what it was like making an animal into a meal, not just eating it.

On a brisk, bright Friday afternoon in January, we chased the ducks around the yard, put them in a high-walled plastic tub and took off for Taylor, where Gerald and Fran Cole of Organicare Farms had generously agreed to help us slaughter and process the birds.

It only took a few minutes into the drive for me to worry about whether I was making the right decision. I wistfully listened to them quack in the backseat, their transgressions forgotten.

"This is an opportunity to learn how to do this," Ben countered.

Gerald showed us around, ticking off his credentials — organic farmer with a penchant for heirloom tomatoes, champion cook on the barbecue circuit — and the number of animals he had raised and occasionally killed as humanely as he could, ducks included.

He warned us that they weren't easy to process. After heating water in a campfire cooker to about 160 degrees, we started anyway.

Easing the first duck head-first into a metal cone, Gerald cut his arteries. The cone kept the bird from breaking his wings, and as he slowly lost blood, he grew still. Within a couple minutes and with little struggle, he died.

Gerald grabbed the bird by his feet and dunked him into the water before throwing him in a machine that tumbled the duck around, plucking the loosest feathers, which the Coles kept for compost.

We did the rest by hand before retrieving the second duck that I had moved out of sight — so I wouldn't have to see him and he wouldn't have to see us.

Ben yielded the knife this time under Gerald's instruction, and we started again. After the bird lost life and most of his feathers, the chore of pulling the tiniest down from his body was all-consuming. The wariness I felt before killing the birds had given way to curiosity.

As we started to eviscerate the animals, Fran advised us what to cook and Gerald took stock of their innards.

"That's fat," he said. "That's gold."

For the second time, I brought the ducks home in a box, this one with ice. And feeling only slightly sentimental about losing our pets, I was glad to know how to slaughter ducks and how it feels to do so, even if I was startled to see a duck beak when I opened the fridge before we boiled what we had salvaged for stock.

A week later, we made Duck a l'Orange, sharing the dark, gamey meat with a friend.

The portions were small, but the fat was gold.

Contact Ciara O'Rourke at 512-392-8750