I spent the weekend at Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd for the Food and Wine Weekend. Great food and drink, produced by great food and drink producers, local and otherwise, abounded and I partook of more than I could possibly mention. One dish, amongst the many, struck me. Served by Doug Flicker, it was a dish with humble origins, perhaps challenging to some, and elevated by the chef. Like many dishes that make an impact, this dish, stuffed duck neck, has a story, at least for me, and in this case, my grandfather and the years I watched him learn to cook.
My grandfather wore thick glasses, shuffled when he walked, had soft hands, and spoke with a throaty German accent. Attention to detail did not come naturally to his somewhat clumsy hands, and yet, when his much younger wife got sick, and eventually died, he took over the duties of the kitchen, feeding my brother and me as he learned.
He first dug into my Grandmother’s Rolodex, working his way through her old recipes. He learned mostly comfort foods, foods he had tried to get his wife to learn, foods from his past, foods that left flour strewn along the counters and pans stacked high. Messes or not though, cooking absorbed him, and the foods he made, he ate with gusto.
When he cooked, he liked to talk, to quote Latin (mostly one or two phrases over and over), and to tell stories. Stories about the day he saw Kaiser Wilhelm paraded in all his gallantry, about the night the Nazis smashed all the temple windows, about the day his rich uncle’s picture at the factory came down and was replaced by a photo of Hitler, about a week in Cuba on the beach waiting for a bureaucrat to process his papers and he could come to New York.
Growing up with no father, his mother influenced much of what he cooked and he talked a lot about her too. She had raised poultry; ducks, geese and chickens, for their dinner table and even produced foie gras from the fattened birds. The necks of the slaughtered poultry, she would skin and debone and stuff with grains and rendered fat, making a greasy sausage, which my grandfather later mastered the making of.
When he cooked roasted poultry for dinner, the stuffed neck always made its way to his plate. He ate, holding it down with a sharp fork, slathering each piece with a real silver Henkel knife, bite-by-bite, with mustard and gravy. Little bits were often left behind, greasy in the corners of his mouth. I remember seeing the makeshift sausage, down at his end of the table, and thinking about trying to get a piece, but not saying anything, knowing he had made it, and it was a delicacy to him.
This weekend, after eating Chef Flicker’s rendition (Morcia stuffed duck neck, served cold and sauced with a yellow (saffron?) emulsion and anchovies), I stood unsure for a moment not sure what to think. I knew the dish was special, but could not quite taste the connection. I just ate a slice, and then another and then another. When it hit me, I went to the chef’s table where he was cooking, and I told him about my strong connection to the dish, and how much I enjoyed his version. Even though I’d never actually eaten it before, I still felt something: almost lost and now understood differently.
I called my mother afterwards on the drive home, and asked her if she remembered grandpa’s version.
I told her, “You know I don’t think, I ever tried it with him”?
She said, “Well, I’m sure he thought, you wouldn’t have liked it”.
Hah, I laughed to myself. Sure, that was the reason.