This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
"Mr. Dion Bouci-cault recently sent Mr. Irving a present of American dainties, which where served at some supper parties which have been given in the beefsteak room at the Lyceum after the performance. Mr. Irving's opinion having been required, he cabled to the doner: 'Our verdict is: perfect. Perfect terrapin, the finest soup known. Canvas-back ducks ethereal.' A celebrated novelist who visited the States a few years ago, gave up all engagements in order to dine with a gourmet twelve days running on canvas-back ducks and champagne. It is strange that the canvas-back duck can never be caught alive. A prominent caterer of New York has been trying for three years to execute a com -mission of Lord Tarbets', second son of the Duke of Sutherland, who sent over for two pairs of live canvas-backs. There is a standing offer of $50 a pair for them, but as yet no one has got it. It is impossible to net them as you do other ducks; the only chance is to wound one badly enough to capture him, but not severely enough to kill him.
Though many persons annually enjoy the sport of shooting canvas-back ducks, the joy of Maryland sportsmen and the pride of Baltimore epicures, few have probably thought of the summer homes of the ducks, where the vacancies in their number, caused by the industry of winter fowlers, are filled by young birds. The ducks are found along the Atlantic coast as far north as Canada, but they migrate in the greatest numbers in the fall to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, where they find their favorite food, the ralunena, or wild celery, a freshwater plant, whose roots they feed upon, and which gives them the juiciness and peculiar flavor which distinguishes them from other ducks and atones for their comparative lack of bright plumage. They follow winter down the Atlantic coast, and remain in the Chesapeake waters dnring the winter months. When the spring opening occurs, they wing their way across the country in a north-westward direction, and spend the summer months breeding and raising their young in the neighborhood of the cool waters of the upper Rocky Mountain system, and in all the far countries north of the fiftieth degree, north latitude. There ajone can their eggs be obtained.
A well-known restaurateur of this city conceived the idea of raising canvas-back ducks in Baltimore. He procured two crippled birds - a male and female - but his experiments were unsuccessful, as the birds pined for the cool air of the British American forests. The canvas-back duck is the royalty of ducks. No other approaches him within the circumference of the earth. His delicacy of flavor and his rare and melting juiciness are attributable to his delicate feeding, which is wholly on wild celery. This duck must be roasted at a rapid fire; brownly - almost blackly - crisp, and served without one gout of sauce or flavor, and with no condiment save a modicum of salt and some sticks of white crisp celery. It is a kind of barbarism to disguise in wine or jelly the melting natural richness of this bird; and if properly cooked, his own crimson gravy will be abundant and delicious. Knowing that having got your duck the next thing is to eat him, the reporter called upon a well-known caterer for information as to the proper way of cooking the bird. Here, to his surprise, he met with a statement which contradicts all the encyclopaedias since the canvas-back duck was given a place therein. He was informed that the canvas-back duck does not cat wild celery.
It has been popularly supposed that the superiority of the Havre de Grace and Potomac River birds was due to the fact that they ate nothing but wild celery, but this famous caterer says that they feed upon a plant called vales-neria, the roots of which are covered with thousands of little insects extremely acceptable to the palate of the canvas-back. However this may be, there is no doubt that when you get a canvas-back you should cook him as follows: Loose as little of the juice or blood as possible. The best way is to split him down the back after plucking and singeing him very carefully. Then lay him on a gridiron with the sph side toward the fire; keep him flat on the gridiron either by pressing him down with the other half of the gridiron or by putting on a weight sufficient heavy for the purpose, but not heavy enough to bruise the meat. Let him remain over the fire for twelve or fifteen minutes; then take him off and expose the breast to the heat for a moment, just long enough to brown the skin nicely, and then serve him immediately before he has a chance to get cool. A salad of celery with a mayonnaise dressing is the proper thing to eat with him.
This with a bottle of very dry champagne frappee makes a course for a king.
Its season lasts 6 months, November to April, inclusive; the first half of the season being its prime.
Singed, drawn, wiped inside with a cloth and dusted with salt. Trussed with the head closing the upper opening, the rump the lower one; roasted in hot oven about 25 minutes. Dusted with salt, spoonful of water inside to increase the gravy, served on a hot dish; celery and currant jelly served separate.