When I told Lola that today was Peking Duck Day, her immediate thought was of the duck that the family eats on Christmas Day in the classic movie A Christmas Story after the Bumpus’ dogs ruin their turkey. It’s a classic scene with the family being serenaded by the staff at a Chinese restaurant with Christmas songs, and then the duck is delivered, head still on, causing the family to shriek in either laughter or horror, we’re not quite sure. The Old Man explains that there is nothing wrong, it’s just that the duck is “smiling at them.” The waiter quickly corrects the situation with a cleaver to the roasted duck’s head. It’s a much more warm and fuzzy scene than you would think. In any case, that’s what Lola thought of, so I had to assure her that our duck would not have a face and bill attached. At least I didn’t think it would.
Peking Duck is very much a traditional Chinese dish that dates back centuries to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368), a time when the Mongol Emperors ruled China. In his article “A brief History of the Peking Duck,” writer Andrew Amelinckx explains that the dish first appears in print in Yinshan Zhengyao (The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink), written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, who was a dietary physician for the royal court. However, the Chinese were eating roast duck for centuries, long before Hu Sihui was signing books at Barnes and Noble Beijing. On a side note, the author points out some of the healthy eating tips that Hu Sihui shared with us in that original text such as:
- Duck meat should never be eaten with turtle meat.
- Never eat beef stomach with dog meat.
- Some exotic recipes for tiger bone liquor, donkey’s head gruel and snow leopard soup
Sorry, I just found that fascinating. The duck used for the traditional Peking Duck is a Pekin breed which was introduced to the US in 1873. According to Amelinckx, the Pekin ducks are raised in the traditional method and, “are allowed to range freely for the first seven weeks and are then confined and force-fed until they are slaughtered at about 65 days.” Preparation for the duck is to slather spices and syrups underneath the skin of the duck and let it marinade over night. Then it is cooked by hanging inside an oven until it roasts to perfection. It is traditionally served with with sliced scallions, cucumber and sweet bean sauce along with pancakes so you can eat it like a taco. It’s good eating if you can get past the smiling duck part.
I knew that this was a dish featured at Jackie’s Galaxy which is an Asian restaurant in Bristol (they also have a location in Providence and in Cumberland). Jackie’s was an old Bar Mel favorite and in regards to a sit down Chinese restaurant, it’s pretty good. They are always busy and the food is fresh and tasty. Our schedule was a bit weird today, so I tried to work a plan to go there for lunch. When that wasn’t working out, I tried to get us penciled in for dinner. Then I decided to install our new router. Apparently, when your old router falls onto the stone of a fireplace hearth, it doesn’t work as efficiently. So we got ourselves a new one which said you just have to plug it in and go. They however left out the part of the process that has you on the phone for 85 minutes with tech support. So that’s how my afternoon went, and when it was over, it had knocked the desire to go out for dinner out of me. Takeout it would be. I placed the order and it was ready for pickup in twenty.
When I got home an unpacked it, there were a few minutes of anticipation not knowing if the head of a duck would be waiting for me inside. I had read a review about Jackie’s that said they cut their Peking Duck to order for you table side at the restaurant. I had never seen that but I imagined that would lend itself to serving a duck head too. Isn’t getting the duck head a sign of good luck? That review was from their Providence location which is a bit more modern/fancy of a location for Jackie’s, so table side duck service may not be a thing in Bristol. The first thing I pulled out was the bag of pancakes which were aplenty. That was a good sign to me – nobody likes running out of pancakes. The next was the bean sauce which also looked good too. It was a brownish hue, nice and thick and smelled tasty. Then I took out the duck which was in a rectangular clamshell take-out container. I popped open the clasp, opened it up slowly like a Goonie opening a treasure chest, and there, peeking up at me, was a beautiful looking plate of duck, completely off the bone and no head in sight.
I actually really like duck, especially when you get one with nice crispy skin. It honestly tastes like a well-seasoned chicken, but it’s kind of fatty, so you get a lot of flavor. 700 years of practice and this dish is pretty much as good as it can get. Even having it served with the scallions, cucumbers and pancakes is a great idea too because they all complement each other. Naturally, had we eaten this at the restaurant it would have been better. The skin would have been crispier, the temperature hotter. But that’s what you sacrifice when you get it to go, and I was ok with that. Lola wasn’t sure if she had ever eaten duck before and to be honest, she wasn’t all that impressed. It was good, but I don’t think she was impressed with any of the food. Sometimes Chinese food just doesn’t hit you the right way, and that was happening last night for her. I also think she was having a tough time processing the “I am eating a duck” thought. That will happen. I tried to tell her to not think of ducks as the cute, cuddly things we feed bread. Think of them as the dirty rapists they are. That didn’t help much. (Duck rape is a real thing. Look it up).
Just like the Mongol rulers of China, we feasted upon Peking Duck today. If you think about that kind of history, that’s a pretty special food that deserves our celebration. It’s still doing the trick today. It may not be everyone’s thing, but it’s a time-honored tradition. So today’s celebration was one of historic proportions, and even though Kublai Khan probably never opted for takeout as a result of time wasted to tech support, we still honored the significance and importance of a meal that has been keeping folks happy and full for years. And although we never got our duck head, we are grateful to be carrying on a tradition of great food that has outlasted empires and dynasties. All hail the Peking Duck.
Next Up: National Popcorn Day