A Thanksgiving Duck

November 20, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez

By the time Thanksgiving moved toward Baltimore in 1962, Johnny Wichodek had half-a-load on, a long night of work ahead of him, and a strong taste for the sweet blood of a duck.

He had a hankering for czarnina.

Johnny worked as a deckhand on the tugboats that docked at the Recreation Pier on Thames Street. He was full of himself when he was sober and full of everything else when he wasn't.

And when he got a big idea in his head, like butchering a duck on a tugboat in the middle of the night, he preached about it until no one could stand to be near him.

"Ain'tcha sick of turkey all the time -- turkey, turkey, turkey. Every year turkey. So dry," said Johnny, screwing up his face as he bent the engineer's ear. "We could have us a nice duck, ain't it Chief, a nice, fat Muscovy?"

"You're goofy, John," said the engineer as the Resolute waited for orders to move a sugar ship from a berth at Domino. "Where you gonna get a duck?"

It was almost 11 on Thanksgiving eve and the Resolute had been pushing ships around the channel since early afternoon. She was idle now, tied-up behind the Rec Pier with one last job between the crew and their families, their turkeys and their holiday.

The harbor was dressed in pearl by a late November moon; trimmed in red and green with the lights of buoys and barges; and carpeted in neon by the 113-by-67-foot reflection of the Domino Sugar sign shimmering across the Patapsco.

It felt like Thanksgiving.

Killing time on the stern, Johnny and the Chief stared across the water as bucket cranes dipped down into the belly of the Domino Crystal, scraping the ship's bottom for brown sand to be polished into table sugar, the buckets a moving belt of shadows over the Crystal's white lights.

The Chief was calm, sipping coffee laced with Spanish cognac. He was thankful for overtime that would turn to triple-time when the clock hit 12. Johnny was drinking beer, and had been most of the day. He was covetous of the way things used to be, too worked-up to be thankful for anything.

"The way my grandmother made chi-nina -- outta this world, Chief," said Johnny. "It was our big meal every Sunday after Mass, every Sunday we could get a duck."

"Chi-nina?" said the engineer.

"Duck blood soup," said Johnny. "Something special."

"Not in my neighborhood."

"Some people make it on the sour side, it's a little dry by itself, but Booshie liked hers sweet, with prunes and a nice pear sliced up, some brown sugar," said Johnny. "I can see 'em in that alley house on Binney Street, Pop out back with his fist around the bird's knobby beak, talkin' soft like a baby and comin' up slow with a straight razor . . . zzzzip! -- clean 'cross the top of the head. I wasn't supposed to be watching, but I'd peek down from the back bedroom. He'd hold it over a bowl and bleed it 'til the duck passed out."

"You ever done this, John?"

"Seen it a million times. After Pop died, Uncle Vaju tried it in the stationary tubs downstairs. Said there'd be less mess, wouldn't let nobody down to help. What a racket! We heard all kinda squawking and cussing under the floor. Vaju comes up white as a sheet and makes straight to Aggie Silk's for a belt and this duck is flapping around bleeding on the walls 'til it dropped dead. Hey, you gotta know what you're doing."

"I'm sure," said the engineer, smiling over the top of his mug.

"The old ones knew," said Johnny. "Pop would hang the duck upside down from the kitchen doorknob and let it all drip out. How much blood you think you get from a duck, Chief? You get a cup, you got a lot. Once you got it all, you dip the bird in scalding water and pick the feathers for pillows. Years back, everybody did it."

Years back.

Johnny stared across the water to the sugar sign and in the middle of the mammoth "D" -- above the endless loop of rolling buckets -- a grown man saw a little boy who loved to watch an old woman cook.

Johnny sipped his beer.

"A little vinegar went in so the blood wouldn't curdle, that was the big worry, cuz you could forget it if it did. When Pop was done dressing the duck, Boosh would cut it up and drop it in a pot of hot water. You let it cook awhile and skim the fat. When the meat was almost dropping off the bone, she'd set the duck on the side and run the broth through a strainer. Some of it went in a pan with a chopped onion, a bay leaf, a little more vinegar and then . . . "

Johnny paused.

"What then, John?"

"Then the blood."

Maroon mercury in a mayonnaise jar, its treacly sheen carried light over the lip of the jar as it covered the deep bottom of a black skillet.

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