My grandfather was a hunter. I recall playing with his duck call (a palm-sized wooden box with a paddle that you rubbed across the top to make a quacking sound) and remember hearing about the times (yes there was more than one) when he returned home from his day in the woods, reeking of skunk. Grandpa didn’t have a sense of smell – a congenital condition that kept him out of the armed service during World War II – and he didn’t seem to care who or what he startled while stalking his game.
My grandmother was a good sport about this all. She had to be. They had five kids and for the first decade or so of their marriage were barely making enough to keep clothes on their backs and food on the table. Grandma was a housewife – a stay-at-home-mom who never finished high school. But she grew most of the family’s food in the large garden out back – rows of cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons, raspberries, carrots and onions – that would be eaten fresh, canned or frozen. Grandma crocheted blankets and sweaters, darned socks and made dresses, cut the grass and shoveled the walk. And she would, without flinching, pluck and clean the birds grandpa brought home from his hunting trips. On at least one occasion I remember her clearning a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, and while the green beans and corn bread and pumpkin pies were cooking she sent her skunk-sprayed husband to sit in a bath of tomato juice and then prepared the freshly shot bird from feather to stuffing. That year we were all told to watch out for bird shot when we were chewing.
But despite seeing Grandpa’s hunting paraphernalia every fall, and being warned away from the locked cabinet where he kept his rifles, I don’t recall eating much of what he brought home aside from that infamous Thanksgiving turkey. By the time I came along hunting was more for fun than necessity, after all, and a few duck or pheasant wouldn’t go too far in a family whose dining room table was being set with nearly two dozen places.
Grandpa has been gone now for nearly a decade, his final breaths taken in the garden that provided sustenance for his family for so many years. I never gave much thought to the shelves of jars in their basement, the back corner root cellar, or whatever else Grandma and Grandpa’s old farmhouse held in its nooks and crannies. But these past few weeks, when I was looking for the perfect spot – not too warm nor cool, with moderate humidity – where I might hang my curing duck breasts, I thought of my grandparents and their sprawling rural homestead.
Making duck prosciutto was surprisingly easy. I buried two one-pound moulard duck breasts in kosher salt for 24 hours and then dusted them with black pepper. Then I hung them, wrapped in cheesecloth, from a rafter in my basement for a week, or until they felt firm and their flesh had turned a deep red.
I cut them down from the night before a snow storm was expected, impressed with my own resourcefulness and the ease of preserving something as… fragile… as raw meat. There were certain scientific processes that I didn’t fully understand that were happening to prevent the meat from rotting or molding that made them edible and perhaps even more delicious than roasting or sauté-ing. Considering the shelves of preserved vegetables in my grandparents’ basement, I wondered if they ever cured their own meat after Grandpa had a particularly good day of hunting. That night I sampled a small slice, leaving some of the thick fat in favor of the rich meat; just a taste to help me dream of what extravagant meal I might create the next morning, an almost certain snow day.
A few hours later I woke to blowing snow and no power. I could see a pine tree had snapped in half a few houses down the hill from my house and took the power lines with it. Utility trucks struggled through the accumulating snow while the thermostat dipped to 55 degrees. The power must have been off since dawn. By candlelight my husband and I lit a burner of our gas stove to heat up day old coffee. My plans for the prosciutto – in an omelet, with a bit of melted fontina and sprinkled with sal de provence – were foiled. Instead I took the duck fat from the night before and rendered it in a cast iron skillet. Once it was crackling I fried up two eggs. I placed them on top of toast, also heated on the stove top, with a slice of the prosciutto in between. A breakfast sandwich that grandpa himself might have made out at hunting camp – as delicious and satisfying on a cold and dark winter morning in the city as it might have been looking out the window of his hunting cabin – a shack really – as the late fall sunrise started to burn the frost off the leaves of the trees. Had Grandpa, brought up by a Holland-born lumberman’s son in central Pennsylvania, even heard of the word prosciutto? Probably not. But knowing that we might have tasted the same simple meal, even decades and a world apart, made me feel closer to him than I had in a long time.