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Professor Quackers & Co.
Eyeball to eyeball with Thanksgiving dinner.
Introduction The Unexpected Guest
I was probably home for five minutes from my annoying day job when my youngest son emerged from the basement. In those days the basement served as a clubhouse for him and his sweet-natured hooligan friends. My husband and I sanctioned this arrangement with the theory that, if they were under our roof, there would be a few ounces of parental oversight for the teenagers’ innate inclination to commit acts that were not so much illegal as stupid.
He said, “Wait until you see what’s in the basement!”
Considering the last sentence in the first paragraph, my exhaustion immediately increased. I girded my loins and followed him downstairs.
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There, surrounded by five club members, waddled a white and gray duck. The explanation for the duck’s presence in the basement went like this: My son and a friend were driving from somewhere to somewhere else when they got the brilliant idea to save a duck from one of the neighborhood’s live animal markets. The duck cost them $15. The seller, a little taken aback that they didn’t want him to kill it, packed the duck in a wooden egg crate for the boys to, logically, carry it back to our basement.
Visions of disease and sheer nuttiness assaulted me. The boys didn't see it my way. I retrieved a large galvanized bucket used for keeping beer cold at parties and instructed the boys to fill it with water. Upon being placed in the water, the duck lowered its head beneath the surface where it stayed for the longest time, probably parched and confused about the turn its life had suddenly taken—from a crowded cage to a tiny pond in a semi-dark basement, surrounded by these other creatures. The boys were ecstatic. They named him Professor Quackers.
I retreated upstairs and collapsed on my bed, head face down into a pillow, matching Professor Quackers’ instinct to shut out the world.
An Unexpected Desire
My neighborhood probably has more live animal markets per capita than any other in New York City. This is due to the various nationalities that call it home. Over the last several decades, because of wars, social upheaval, and economic distress, the area’s earlier population of Italians, Irish, Norwegians, and Puerto Ricans have been joined by people from China, various Middle Eastern countries, Caribbean islands, and Russian Ashkenazi Jews. Hipsters have made inroads lately. All have transformed what had become a depressed area into a thriving community, revitalizing the main business streets and its religious and cultural institutions. Everyone gets along, although some remain wary of the gentrification threat around what others consider the cool industrial parts down by the harbor.
Live animal markets are part of each of their cultures. For Italians, Chinese, Caribbean, and hipsters, it’s the freshness of the meat; for Muslims and Jews, it’s religious requirements in how the animals are slaughtered. Chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, lambs, and some game animals are offered in most of the markets. Come Thanksgiving and Christmas, they stock turkeys.
My turkeys usually come from a regular food market that carry, in addition to Butterball, birds that claim to be organic, natural, free-range, pastured, and heritage. Cost is usually the deciding factor, which narrows it down to those that are not labeled pastured and heritage.
Not many days ago, I started fixating on buying a live turkey. There was no particular reason for this fixation. Maybe it was because of the issue raised around the lamb’s head I wrote about last week, which encapsulated the argument discussed in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: If you eat meat, you should take into consideration where the animal was from and how it was raised and prepared for your consumption.
I asked several friends who knew something about the markets and was guided to two in particular. One was in Crown Heights and catered to the Caribbean and Jewish population, and the other in what used to be part of Bensonhurst, a once predominantly Italian section, now mostly Chinese. Each advertised that their birds were raised on small farms in nearby states, many from Amish farmers, free of antibiotics and, for the most part, allowed to spend part of their days pecking away in open yards. What all the markets in Brooklyn have in common is their workers used to be farmers in their countries and knew a thing or two about husbandry and humane slaughtering. In addition, the halal and kosher markets strictly follow Muslim and Jewish rules.
The tallest thing on Utica Avenue is the proud red rooster perched atop Utica Poultry in Crown Heights. The market is one of the fanciest among the live animal markets, the entrance surrounded by engraved black marble and, inside, lit by brass and frosted glass chandeliers. Wooden cages filled with chickens and ducks are stacked behind glass doors in the back. You have to go elsewhere for rabbits, lambs, and goats.
A long line stretched from the cashier window to the door. Half the people in line turned around as I took my place at the end. Some of them visibly straightened their backs at the sight of the only white person among them. I also appeared obviously ignorant of the shop’s proceedings, which included knowing enough to bring along a large bag or shopping cart.
After several minutes of observing the activities, I asked the woman in front of me if I should have placed an order already. She said I should have.
“You’re too late anyway,” she said, then helpfully added, “they have good chickens.”
I thanked her and drove over to Bensonhurst.
LaPera is about 70 years old, give or take depending on who you ask. Carlos Formisano has been managing the store for the last 35 years—that’s him in the video. No one knows where the LaPera brothers are now but the market has always been on 61st Street across from the subway tracks. There used to be similar markets around, but now it’s sandwiched between a lumber yard and an auto shop. Years ago, LaPera’s customers were all Italian; now they’re mostly Chinese, a lot of them to supply their nearby restaurants.
It was a similar situation here as it was on Utica Avenue—another long line, everyone with a large bag or shopping cart. A sign inside recommended you call ahead with your order. I returned home and called. No answer. I tried again a little later. Nope, nothing. The first thing I did when I awoke on Sunday was call LaPera, and a man answered.
“Is it too late to order a turkey?” I asked.
“Come tomorrow. Or Tuesday,” he said.
I told him I would be there the next day when they opened at seven a.m.
“I got a fresh turkey,” I told my husband with a little too much optimism for Sunday morning.
“Why are you getting a turkey?” he asked.
“Because,” I said. You’d think he would know why after all these years of putting up with me.
“You know I hate turkey,” he said then poured his first cup of coffee for the day and retreated to another room.
Yes, I’d forgotten that he had grown up in a family that only knew overcooked Butterballs reduced to an oval-shaped block of wood.
There was the argument to be made that a freshly killed and skillfully cooked turkey would be succulent and very tasty. Then again, I had learned by then how much the bird would cost and was sure my husband would have a conniption. At both Utica and LaPera, turkeys started at $15 a pound. We’ve all been informed that, due to inflation and a country-wide viral outbreak of avian flu, turkeys would be expensive this year, maybe as much as $2 a pound. That roughly averages out to be a frozen turkey costing at least $13 less expensive than a freshly killed and you wouldn’t have to listen to your dinner squawking because of you.
Yesterday, I went to my regular food store and bought a small loin of pork. I don’t know where the poor pig who gave up his life for our Thanksgiving table came from but its loin will be wrapped around sausage and sage stuffing.
Epilogue Professor Quackers Finds a Home
I returned to the basement. (It is probably worth noting that no one told my husband about the basement’s new resident. Guided by the same impulse to maintain some marital sanity, I’m sure he has kept a barrel full of our children’s shenanigans from me.)
My son was reading in bed. Professor Quackers was out of its pond and eating bread from one of my mixing bowls.
“The duck has got to go,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, not looking up from his book.
“I mean it.”
“It will be.”
It was times like this when, given the stage of his life he was drifting through, I had to trust my son. And he came through. The same friend who was equally responsible for Professor Quackers helped my son carry him over to a fancy prep school that was home to a large flock of ducks. They snuck the Professor through an open gate and watched it toddle off to join his new family. We would stop and visit every now and then and he seemed very happy, fat and free.
I have to show you this! A couple of years ago, the animal market nearest my house was shut down after one of its young bulls escaped. It ran 60 blocks away, landing in Prospect Park where it caused quite a ruckus gallivanting around a soccer field. Jimmy Kimmel will guide you through the whole adventure.