To begin, let me make some clarifying statements. This essay is not really about the ducks. I never met any ducks—let’s say walking along the side of the road nor amidst a hiking trail nor down by the river—who in turn inspired such strong emotions. The ducks that I refer to in this essay were, honestly, pieces of said ducks, after they had been killed and plucked and broken into parts: breasts, legs, wings (and bones and fat) and were sourced from less than 100 miles from my home. Also, in this essay I am not mad at the ducks. They did not interfere with my life in any way, and in fact, these ducks brought me deliciousness, for which I always, always feel gratitude. And, although this may displease you, depending on your stance in relation to the human consumption of animals, I am not really mad on behalf of the ducks. My anger has not been directed at either the circumstances of their slaughter or the fact of their slaughter. There are reasons to be so (but such reasons are not elaborated in this essay).

The story. My family has long volunteered for an organization that provides meals and shelter for people living in and around our small rural town. We have made desserts for daily lunches and dropped them off. We have helped host community suppers on behalf of our faith community. We have served at both the lunches and suppers. We love this organization, the sentiments behind what it makes happen, and all the people who labor there, as paid work or volunteer labor (much more of the latter than the former).

Our participation is a gift that allows for the operation of this charity food system, which is not exactly a smaller version of our current global food system, but rather a parallel one. There are no exchanges of money between anyone. There is but one shared goal in both systems—to provide nourishment for those who want and need it. However, the premises are different. When we drop off food or come in to set up and serve, we are being charitable. We are not accountable for the right functioning of the organization, there are no performance reviews, we pick and choose our involvement, and the organization responds with gratitude but not expectations.

Gift exchange systems have logics different from commodity exchange systems. The charity food system, at least in the United States and certainly in my small town, functions within and between both, at all times. Commodities that can no longer work within that exchange model slide into gifts (which become gifts to be given to the less fortunate but so in doing become gifts to the giver too). The great majority of food used is donated by local retailers, the food bank, restaurants, and individuals.

Bring in the ducks. The ducks were purchased by the local food cooperative, a major retailer in our community. They were initially purchased in February to coincide with Valentine’s Day (anyone want to make duck breast with a raspberry sauce for their beloved?). Somewhere along the line, someone at the coop placed an order for the ducks that was too large for the audience of people who might want to buy a duck breast, or even more unlikely, a duck leg or duck wings. Hence, a preponderance of parts from said ducks.

Inefficiencies in supply chains are a fact of modern life. We rely on items from literally every part of the globe, and the logistics are complex, the number of players is vast, and inevitably problems arise. In the case of food, such problems are compounded by its perishability. The moment an animal gets killed or a plant harvested, decay (the state or process of rotting or decomposition, says the Oxford Dictionary) starts to set in. The human transformation from the raw to the preserved and palatable is necessary, often immediately. Certainly, this was the case with the ducks. The ducks not sold within a certain window of time no longer held a certain commodity status. The reasons for the loss of such status are complex, but most often it’s related to chosen and stamped “sell by” or “use by” dates, recommendations by sellers and retailers that are not regulated by any state or federal agency. Now categorized as “leftovers,” the extra breasts (but mostly legs and wings) had to be processed for greater longevity or frozen to be used at a later time, their market value compromised.

Enter the community lunches and dinners. Why not move these “duck leftovers” out of the commodity supply chain system and into a gift exchange system? Waste is minimized while charitableness is enhanced. Win-win. So, one day last March, when my husband went to work his (volunteer) shift, Judy, the woman in charge, opened up the refrigerator and showed him the (many, many) pieces of duck, encased in plastic, with the purchase price, the sell-by date, and the place of origin all listed on a sticker prominently displayed in the middle of the packaging.

For his volunteer shift work, my husband roasted the ducks, sliced the meat, and placed the duck meat in to-go containers with vegetables, potatoes, and the other side dishes usually prepared. These to-go containers were placed in plastic bags; volunteer drivers then picked up all the dinner meals and drove to the four hotels in town temporarily providing shelter for houseless folks (COVID-19 protocols). The next week, when he returned for his shift, Judy informed him that the duck dinner had not been popular. If you think about it, why would these folks be interested in such a dish when few customers at the retail store were so moved? The solution for the retailer became the problem for Judy. She is an extraordinary problem-solver. But the ducks were a hard one. She saw no way to transform those duck legs and wings into anything desirable for her customers. So, she said to my husband, “take the ducks.”

The charity now extended to us. The ducks were a gift, or perhaps we were the next stop in a particular system, a system based on an ideal of nourishment but without any of the current global food system’s external standards (profit, nutrition, safety) around which to organize. (We ended up purchasing fruits and vegetables and giving those to Judy in a reciprocal exchange for the ducks.) In traditional gift economies, scholars say that as gifts circulate among people and communities, so does their value. This system, where we get the gift of the duck parts, might best be characterized as an accidental or incidental gift economy. Each item is a unique gift, a blessing and a curse. In our charitable food system, the intentions are not focused on reciprocal gift exchanges but rather on moral values (to not waste food, to feed the poor or hungry).

However, any system organized around food must also be grounded in temporal and practical realities. The ducks need to be cooked in some way. And someone needs to eat said ducks. Here’s the rub. Who is to say that those who labor for or rely upon the charity organization have any more interest in the duck legs and wings (and the bones and fat) than those at the retail store? What type of alchemy is going to move said ducks to being somehow preserved and palatable?

So, I guess I am mad about why and how the pieces of said ducks circulate. “Circulation” might not be quite the right word; in these (hopefully moving to post-) COVID-19 times, it might point you to the movement of air through enclosed spaces. That is not what I mean. “Exchange” might be the more accurate term. As they say, my “issues” are with the absurdity of the various transactions and the reasons as to the cascade of decisions and indecisions that led to this cycle of exchanges. I’m mad because such decisions and indecisions about these ducks forced them into liminal spaces—first, commodities to be exchanged through the intermediary of money but then gifts to be presented when the commodity exchange fell through. To put a finer point on the situation, I am mad about the change in the use value of the ducks and the number of assumptions as to what should happen to them; what happened was a long, strange journey for said ducks.

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss, a student of gift exchanges, argues that gifts are a total social fact—all the assumptions and values of a culture reside in that gift. As I confronted the bags of duck parts now in my kitchen, I pondered his point. What was the meaning of this gift, not just for our family but for our food system? Well, the reason we were recipients of this gift was because no one so far in this set of charitable food exchanges (except my husband) knew how to cook the ducks—the step of moving the ingredient from the raw to the palatable and pleasurable. Crucial skills and knowledge were missing; our gift, thus, was due to a certain form of ignorance. And following Mauss, such a lacuna is not the responsibility of any individual, but of a culture. Feeding those who otherwise may not be able to eat is a right and noble value, as is not wasting food. But if we don’t have the wherewithal to do so with the gifted items on hand, the system does not work. Nor does it work if the proffered food isn’t perceived as pleasurable.

Lucky for us, and certainly behind Judy’s gift of said ducks to him on that fateful March day, is the fact that my husband is a trained chef. He knows how to cook duck. And he did. He made confit of duck. He made duck stock. He made duck ham. In restaurant parlance, he “utilized all the product.” However, he did not return these products to Judy, for these foods were too unfamiliar, too outside the everyday eating practices of her community of eaters. But he found another community. As part of a small farm and food business, he makes wood-fired oven pizzas. He can now put confit of duck and duck ham on the pizzas for sale each Saturday at his farm stand. And each Saturday, these pizzas are sold. To people who often shop at our cooperative retail store, who went shopping in February but probably did not buy said ducks. Now transformed from the raw to the cooked, they returned to the commodity food system and were eaten by those can participate in it with ease.

Is there really any “fault” here? Somebody was raising ducks somewhere nearby who needed to sell them. A retail store was willing to buy them. The “leftovers” were not wasted. One group of people experienced roast duck. Another group of people chose to eat duck-inspired pizza they understood to be delicious. But certainly, fault lines are revealed—in the commodity food system, in the charitable food system, in the limits of what people know about food even while they think about it every day, in the assumptions we have about shared perceptions of what makes food good. If a goal of a food system is to provide nourishment to those who want and need it, the plot archetype underlying the story of the ducks is a tragicomedy.

So, I am not mad about the ducks. I am mad about the inefficiencies baked into every step of our current food system, mad at the inadequate and unjust organization of our food system, and mad on behalf of every plant, animal, and person embedded in our food system that can’t quite get the respect they deserve.

Recently, though, I heard a hopeful story about croutons. My friends have been very involved in a community fridge mutual aid project that emerged during the pandemic. Food pantries and mutual aid volunteers stock the fridges. Retail stores (of all types) donate food. One day, my friend, newly graduated from college, picked up many loaves of French bread from a bakery. There was too much bread, and it was too stale for either the fridge or the nearby food pantry. But there she was with so many loaves in the back of her car. She took the bread home and decided to do something about it to keep it palatable and pleasurable. And in the spirit of the gift, she enhanced the value. She went online, found a recipe, and voila—many bags of croutons. I could say more. But it is dinner time; off I go to eat my duck confit and roasted peach wood-fired pizza. May we, someday, create a food system that does not ping-pong good food between commodity and charity status, or simply dump it, literally and figuratively, to get it out of the way.