Driftless Terroir: A Pilgrimage, Farm Chicks and a Live Muscovy Duck

Bazile Booth

Welcoming Antigone Canadensis (Sand Hill Cranes) and Resisting Urges to Fight, Flee, Freeze or Faint 

On the morning of March 14, a newly wedded pair of old friends left the River Valley and hit the highway for Central Nebraska, determined to fulfill a pilgrimage hatched during their courtship six months prior. They loaded their small pickup with the comforts of home: to-go coffee mugs (rendered obsolete the very next day), a few nutritious snacks, warm blankets, several layers of clothing, and musical accompaniments. Aware of the growing pressure to stay closer to home, they’d pushed their departure ahead a full two weeks, seizing the moment. They were yet to realize just how narrow the window would be for this type of travel, and how pivotal the historical context, as their species was poised to be sent back into hibernation upon the spring equinox. Buffered by the bliss of their relative ignorance, they made their way toward the springtime oasis of the world’s sandhill cranes. 

By their first stop for gas in Grant Wood’s hometown, the road trippers had nibbled through their stash of granola bars and succumbed to the aromatic spell of a fried chicken dinner to go. This guilty pleasure would tide them over until the next morning, when they awakened at dawn in a Nebraska state park near the slushy shores of the Platte River. Eager to catch the cranes’ murmuration at first light, the pair took a hint from their waitress at a nearly empty truck stop, tipped generously, and swooped down to discover a random bridge in the outskirts of Doniphan, a town about the size of Lone Rock. 

A newly wedded pair made our way toward the springtime oasis of the world’s sandhill cranes. Surprisingly, The Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary was open, but eerily quiet, and scheduled to close indefinitely the next day, out of concern for the spread of coronavirus.

The graffiti-covered, one-lane steel bridge offered perfect dawn and dusk viewings of cranes congregating on sandbars on that overcast and chilly Sunday. A few other birders, carrying binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses, kept safe distances from each other, silently acknowledging their common purpose. Surprisingly, The Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon was open, but eerily quiet, and scheduled to close indefinitely the next day, out of concern for the spread of coronavirus. The denial wearing thin, with sounds and images of crane migration documented, the pair returned to the River Valley to comply in earnest with the impending stay at home order. 

Gallus Gallus: We Admitted We Like Poultry, We Like It a Lot, and We Prefer It From the Farmer 

For better or for worse, social media and video chat apps have aided our networking abilities, and for many of us, helped preserve our livelihood and sanity as of late. Somewhere in the first few weeks of lockdown, I realized I was developing an aversion to messages of behavioral policing, despite their correctness and intention. I now regard this knee-jerk response to be part of the grieving process of life as I knew it before, but at the time I was getting weary of any suggestions, even if I agreed with them, on what to do with my mind, my body, spirit, or extra time. I spied an antidote: a dear friend re-posted a poem, inspired by Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, imploring us not to succumb to insidious forms of perfectionism, including productivity in all things. I later learned this piece was authored by Adrie Kusserow, a professor at St. Michael’s College in VT, and is entitled “Mary Oliver for Corona Times.” 

As I assessed my coping skills and regarded my change of status on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (that neat little pyramid graph that puts food, clothing and shelter on the base layers), my new husband and I, in the process of merging households, demonstrated similar instincts about food. We bought whole frozen chickens from two local farmers, made gallons of soups, put up several half gallons of sauerkraut, and baked countless loaves of sourdough bread for ourselves and for friends. Incidentally, I’ve been making sourdough for years and didn’t realize that commercial yeast and white flour were becoming scarce in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Baking with sourdough (aka wild yeast) starter, and using locally produced flour does have the benefit of decreasing dependency on yeast and commercial flour, and its flavor and nutrition potentials are through the roof. 

Another friend, Andy who I have nicknamed the “chick-evangelist,” is using some free time to design a backyard coop for us, and we’ll build it together. Thanks to an Instagram post or two, our sauerkraut became a bartering tool for some duck and lamb, adding two more local farmers to our household’s exchange network. Please see the list at the end of this article for some suggestions on how to support local producers and feed yourselves and your family and friends, a win-win situation. 

Which leads me to the duck story, abridged for sensitive readers. 

Cairina Moschata (Muscovy Duck): Facing the Reality of the Meat we Eat

Somehow, for a half gallon of our sauerkraut and some sourdough rye, and we came away with nettles, ramps and sunroots (aka Jerusalem artichokes) that we helped gather, plus an assortment of ornamental garden transplants, and a live Muscovy duck. The duck meat made its way into the pho-style noodle soup pictured above. 

So, like with many of you, the idea of expanding one’s vegetable garden came naturally as our state of quarantine aligned with planting season. In April, we called upon our friend Richard for a few square bales of straw to mulch our garden paths. We arranged a visit to Rocky Ledge Farm, appropriately distanced and not entering the house. Somehow, for a half gallon of our sauerkraut and some sourdough rye, and we came away with nettles, ramps, and sunroots (aka Jerusalem artichokes) that we helped gather, plus an assortment of ornamental garden transplants, and a live Muscovy duck. 

I’m not going to get all Michael Pollan on you, but the Omnivore’s Dilemma is a point of reference many readers will understand. I knew intellectually that it would be a good idea to experience what it means to take an animal’s life and render its body into something edible. Now, I’ll forever hold a memory of this solemn and labor-intensive ritual. My great-grandfather Beryl Kubovitsky (assimilated at Ellis Island to be Morris Booth) served the small community of Virginia, Minnesota as a Kosher butcher in the first few decades of the 20th Century. During the Depression and an uprising or two, he and my great-grandmother Jenny allowed striking taconite miners to run up tabs at their shop, until they went bankrupt and the family moved to Chicago. The skills of the shochet were not handed down to me; therefore I allowed my steadfast companion to direct the process, but I most certainly had a hand in it. 

We were changed in uncountable ways by the process of slaughtering and butchering this duck. And we’ve done what we can to honor its life, including to enjoy making pho-style noodle soup with a fabulously rich broth and tender, dark meat. Unfortunately, we upset some vegetarian friends along the way, which we regret and have tried to make amends. We won’t likely repeat this experience any time soon, but it was an opportunity that we appreciated fully as we dream up ways to seat more people at our tables. 

As I sought to find the origin of the name Muscovy, I learned that it has nothing to do with old world Moscow nor likely with musk. The etymology is too long to discuss here, but my research did reveal that a popular homeopathic remedy for cold and flu symptoms, marketed as Oscillococcinum, is in fact made from an infinitesimally small amount of the liver and heart of the Muscovy duck. Generally regarded as placebos with highly subjective anecdotal ratings, homeopathic remedies can complement standard treatments but are no substitute for medical management of infectious disease. 

The moral (morel) of the story: don’t let yourselves be moralized, demoralized, or listen to quackery. Keep your eyes on the prize and follow your wisest guidance. I can’t wait to see everyone in person again and hear your stories of survival and beyond. 

Please consider supporting these local farms and businesses (list not exhaustive): Your local farmers’ market, My Fine Homestead, Seven Seeds Organics, Ducks in a Row Family Farm, Meadowlark Organics, Enos Farms, Spring Green General Store, Your local grocery store.

Please give some love to: Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center Wood River, NE (currently closed) Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, NE (open after June 30).

Bazile Booth is a native of Boulder, Colorado. The fertile Driftless Region lured her successfully outside the bubble of Madison, where she trained as a clinical social worker. Natural medicines, including foraging, cooking, gardening, and the art of fermentation are Bazile’s great passions.