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. I really thought I’d seen it all after catering 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 in a 4-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 challenge. But luckily, a group of hungry men isn’t a tough crowd—as long as there is enough food to go around.
Time permitting, I would join some of the activities. During a talk on the human longing for the primordial, salty ocean from which our ancestors crawled, we 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, and these often involve great struggle,” explained The Doctor. “These three mechanisms are mutation, natural selection, and conscious choice.”
Wisdom came in threes that day. I was still digesting the three mechanisms of evolution when 4-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 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 incompletely digested legumes. Luckily there was a breeze. 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 had purchased 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.
That night, I mashed together turmeric, cardamom, fresh garlic and fresh sage with a mortar and pestle. I added the juice of one lime, soy sauce, 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 begin.
Then I put a splash of canola oil in the wok on the propane burner and fried the duck skin in the oil until the skin was shriveled and crispy. At this point the wok contained over a cup of duck fat.
To the hot fat, I first added the bony pieces, like the back and neck, and fried them until the bones crunched in my mouth like crackers. Then I fried the meaty pieces until they were brown and crispy. I put them on the cast iron platter with the crispy skin pieces, poured coconut curry sauce over it all, and garnished with lime and cilantro. I call this dish Downward Duck, in honor of the inner tube yoga pose I developed in the swimming hole.
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. I made a wish for the men inside, turned tail, and got the duck out of there.
My next cooking gig, barring an invite from the warden, will be the Garden City Harvest/PEAS Farm Party in the Rattlesnake on August 19 (see Calendar). The food, beer and music will be flowing, and girls are very much allowed.