Sometimes, Chef Boy Ari is invited to cook at events
around the state of Montana. Along the way, I've met
great folks and seen amazing places. And I really thought
I'd seen it all after catering to a bachelorette party
on the Blackfoot River last year. Then I got invited
to cook for the Montana Men's Foundation's 2004 retreat.
In the days leading up to the gig, everyone wanted me
to explain what happens at a men's retreat, but I didn't
have a clue. Several people quoted me the Utah Philips
line about men "dragging their scrotums through the underbrush" at
such events. I was elbowed, glanced at sideways, and
cautioned about strange diseases.
The camp was situated at the foot of the Pintler Mountains,
which glittered above the scene like the toothy grin
of an old cowboy. I was gathering sage for the antelope
stew one day when a young cowboy drove by on a four-banger
en route to the sweat lodge, hauling a load of basalt
rocks gathered nearby. Juxtapositions like this were
common. Old and new mixed like sweat-grass and sage,
and few stereotypes were confirmed.
In camp cooking, you are limited to the food and utensils
you remember to bring. Improvisation and flexibility
are part of the package. But luckily, a group of hungry
men isn't a tough crowd-as long as there is enough food
to go around. Hunger, said Edward Abbey, is the best
One morning during a discussion on our deep longing
for the primordial salty ocean from which our ancestors
crawled, the conversation entered the topic of evolution.
A man I called The Doctor pointed out that every species
on Earth is now affected by human activity, which in
turn is dictated by the evolution of human consciousness. "There
are now three mechanisms by which we can evolve, which
often involve great struggle," explained The Doctor. "These
three mechanisms are mutation, natural selection and
Wisdom came in threes that day. I'd only partially digested
the three mechanisms of evolution, when four-Banger-whose
mind never strayed far from the great salt mother-spat
through his teeth: "My daddy knew a thing or two about
struggle," he said. "He always said that there's three
things that you should always rent: Things that float,
fly or (F-word).
That afternoon we had bean burritos for lunch, and the
yoga session that followed was punctuated by the low-frequency
sound of partially digested legumes. Lying on my back
amidst the sage and cow shit after a particularly flatulent
rendition of the Downward Dog pose, my mind focused on
tomorrow's lunch, which was to be a dish I had never
attempted. Not only was it to be a step forward in my
culinary evolution, but it was something that flies,
floats and (F-word)s! In fact, it even rhymes with (F-word)!
Now that's cosmic.
I bought the duck on a whim when I saw it next to the
chicken in the freezer and received a vision of crispy,
deep-fried duck smothered in coconut curry sauce.
First, I mashed together turmeric, cardamom, fresh garlic
and fresh rabbitbrush with a mortar and pestle. I added
soy sauce, the juice of one lime and vinegar from a jar
of pickled peppers. Then, I washed the duck in vinegar,
cut off the skin, hacked the bird to pieces, rubbed it
with the spices, and left it to marinate overnight.
The next day, I chopped ginger, lemon grass, dried chilies
and galanga root, and fried the mix in a cast iron skillet
with a combination of canola oil and bacon grease. I
added chunks of lime, sliced onion, zucchini and yams.
Finally I added coconut milk and let the slow simmer
I put a splash of canola oil in the wok on the propane
burner and fried the duck skin until it was shriveled
and crispy and floating in over a cup of simmering duck
I removed the fried skin and added the bony pieces,
like the back and neck, and fried them until the bones
crunched like crackers. Then I fried the meaty pieces
until they were brown and crispy. I arranged the crispy
duck on a cast iron platter and poured coconut curry
sauce over it, garnishing with lime and cilantro. I christened
my new dish Downward Duck, in honor of the inner tube
yoga pose I had developed in the swimming hole that afternoon.
Driving home, I took a wrong turn outside of Deer Lodge
and drove onto the grounds of Montana State Prison. As
I readjusted my course, I was struck by the irony of
these two very different men's gatherings in such close
proximity. What could these two groups learn from each
other? What could society learn from them both? I made
a wish, turned tail, and got the duck out of there.