I like wild ducks only when they're tender and juicy and well done," explained pretty Mrs. Willard Van Beuren King of St. Louis, as she began the preparation of a most unusual game dish. "So I brown them first very thoroughly, and then I cook them for a long time in a Dutch oven with lots of good things. This enrages the sportsmen who like 'bloody duck,' of course. But when the bird is cooked this way, even the legs come out tender and edible." At serving time the dish proved to be a creation of cheflike finesse.
Mrs. King, whose given name is Frances, has always been called Fauvette, a French word that means warbler. And like a songbird, this Fauvette loves to greet the dawn in the open air. On many days of the local duck season, sunrise finds her attired in padded shooting clothes, hip boots and a raccoon cap, slogging through the "gumbo" mud of Dardene Prairie west of St. Louis or crouched in an icy duckblind with her husband Van.
Dardene Prairie is the long, low spit of primitive floodland—most of it. privately owned—that lies between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. Here each year thousands of waterfowl—mallard, sprig, teal, blackjack, redhead, wood duck and Canada goose—interrupt their southern migration to feast on hundreds of acres of millet and smartweed. When Dardene Prairie's feeding grounds are depleted and its chain of diked ponds frozen hard, the birds and many of the St. Louis marksmen move south together to that next stop along the Mississippi flyway, the shooting grounds of Arkansas.
All this is the spice of life to Fauvette, who acquired a taste for shooting from her sports-minded parents, the Virgil Lewises (her mother was at one time skeet champion of Missouri). But equally rewarding are her culinary triumphs. She was born with flair, has cooked for 18 years and has become a real maestra in the kitchen. Homemade bread—a favorite of her four children—flaky croissants and Grand Marnier soufflé are commonplaces in this household. And though the Kings have plenty of help in their large, comfortable house on Washington Terrace, Fauvette herself cooks for all the dinner parties she gives.
Often served to guests at this time of year is her wonderful duck preparation. On the day I was there she made it with mallard. I have since tried out the recipe for an unexpected party of 10, with a mixed bag of birds, to wit, one golden pheasant, one mallard duck, a partridge and—three store-bought squabs. The dish was an unqualified success. It seems likely that this recipe could even transform Arctic ptarmigan or capercaillie into genuine delicacies. I only regret that I didn't have it in my possession when a friend one time persuaded me to cook, as well as eat, crow.
WILD DUCK A LA FAUVETTE (serves four)
2 wild ducks
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sherry
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons flour
1½ cups strong bouillon
½ cup dry red wine
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 cups cooked wild rice, molded in custard cups
Clean, pluck and singe the ducks. Remove and discard wings. Halve neatly with poultry shears, and cut out the backbone completely. (Scissors will be useful, too, to cut through the skin without tearing.)
Melt butter in Dutch oven. Brown the four halves of duck in this, turning often, till they are very dark brown. Now pour sherry over them. In a moment or two remove the duck pieces temporarily and stir the pot briskly to amalgamate the sherry with the "browning." Lower heat and stir in the tomato paste. Sift in the flour gradually, stirring with a whisk to insure smoothness. Gradually whisk in the bouillon (warmed previously), the seasoning and the red wine. Bring smooth mixture to the boiling point and return duck pieces to the pot. Add sliced mushrooms and bay leaf. Cover pot and cook over very low heat for one hour.
Remove duck pieces to a large platter, placing them so they are well separated. Keep them warm. Strain, then degrease the sauce (a quick way to do this is to pour it into a thin saucepan set in a bowl of ice cubes and ice water; the fat that rises to the surface can then be spooned off). Reheat the sauce over brisk fire. Unmold hot, cooked wild rice between duck halves on platter. Spoon some hot sauce over each duck section. Garnish with a border of red, spiced crabapples.