Rusty Staub was standing in his very small Manhattan kitchenette, trying to squeeze garlic through a press. "I can't even get a grip on this thing," he said, shaking his injured hand and picking up a jar of garlic powder instead. The New York Mets slugger, who under rather remarkable circumstances has become an expert cook, was preparing what he calls his "cure-all" sauce, a mushroom concoction that he serves with game birds. Since Staub normally has as heavy a hand with a garlic press as with a baseball bat, the sauce would be, alas, less savory than usual. He was also frying out two pounds of bacon, the fat to be used to crisp the skins of a dozen teal, pintail and mallard ducks he had brought down from Montreal the day before. When Staub was traded from the Expos to the Mets, he left behind in Montreal a freezer filled with game he had shot, plus a few dozen Dover sole and scampi.
Staub hardly thought when he filled the freezer that cooking would be his main game for the summer, but so it turned out. His injured right hand, which was discovered last week to have a broken bone in it, will keep him out of the Met lineup until September. That is hard on a man who likes to play every day, not to mention being hard on the Mets. But Staub has been fighting frustration as best he can: buying equipment for his kitchen, searching out a superior butcher on New York's East Side and cooking for friends.
The evening's duck was being prepared for teammates Jim Fregosi, Dave Marshall and Ken Boswell, who live in the same apartment building, and a few other friends. Rusty washed out the birds, then began to put spices into the flour he would use to dredge them. "I've always liked to cook," he said. "When I come off a road trip I don't want to go out to eat. In some ways the setup here reminds me of the first year I played pro ball—in Arizona, where we lived four to a room. It was the Savoy Field Apartments in Scottsdale. I'll never forget the name. They had a fantastic barbecue pit. That's where I got started."
It was 11 years ago that Staub, then 17, and his brother Chuck left New Orleans to play minor league ball for Scottsdale. "They deducted the rent from our paychecks, and after that there wasn't much left," he recalls. "So we found a wholesale market, and we'd write home and ask how to cook what we'd bought. Mother always came through."
By mail from New Orleans, Mrs. Staub taught her son how to prepare some basic dishes—such Louisiana favorites as oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and artichoke balls, plus some concoctions of her own. The lessons continued when Rusty was transferred to a team in Apache Junction, but his opportunities for practical application were limited. There was no kitchen available to Staub—the team was fed en masse—but his creole correspondence continued.
Moving on to the relative sophistication of Durham, N.C., Staub experimented with regional specialties, and by the time he joined the Houston Astros in 1963 he was a good enough cook to prepare not only oysters Rockefeller, but fried oysters and chicken for 50 of his friends at a Christmas feast. On days off he went hunting and perfected recipes for the game he shot: venison, moose, geese, quail, dove and duck. He became a fine shot, a good chef and not a bad ballplayer.
Montreal fans gave him a new nickname, and duck Le Grand Orange became a regular feature at the Expos' dinner parties. The dish was not one of Mrs. Staub's recipes, but it does have its origins in Louisiana. It came to Staub via Mel Didier, a hunting friend from Baton Rouge and the Expos' chief scout.
This evening marked the first time Staub had made such a dinner in New York and he was dubious about an important ingredient, the sausage. "It should be real country sausage, but I guess Jones will have to do," he said, stirring two pounds of it and three pounds of chopped beef into some cooked wild rice. This preparation, broiled in the oven, accompanied the birds.
The ducks had been floured and browned, then cooled a little. Now Staub put a small amount of cooking oil and about three cups of water into each of two big Dutch ovens. Holding the birds one by one over the pots, he stuffed some with mushrooms from the "cure-all" sauce and the others with a mixture of chopped green pepper, celery, onion and some of the sausage meat. The cure-all ducks went into one pot, the green-peppered ones into the other. Juices from the birds dripped into each pot as he stuffed them, contributing to a natural sauce. During two hours of cooking over small gas burners the ducks would stew in their own juice.
"It's tough to really mess it up: you just have to keep your head," said Staub, tucking leftover vegetables from the stuffing around the birds. He gave them a final pat, covered the pots and turned the gas down very low. He phoned a friend upstairs to turn off the burners after two hours, and leaving supper to simmer, he departed for Shea Stadium, where he sat by helplessly through 14 long innings as the punchless Mets lost to San Diego 1-0.
Then it was home again with Marshall, Fregosi and Boswell, who found Staub had a winner in his kitchen. The ducks were reheated and the wild-rice casserole was put under the broiler for 20 minutes. The ducks smelled divine. At exactly 1 a.m. Staub spooned duck gravy over the rice, and suddenly Louisiana seemed a lot closer than Shea. The birds were full of flavor—rich and spicy. The chef was a hit.