You'll note that the vaunted pintail, universally considered the finest-tasting duck nowadays, doesn't even make the cut. And when pintails do show up in market lists, they are always cheaper than ruddy ducks. What was going on here? Back to the literature, and what emerged was a picture of an age when diver ducks, not puddle ducks, were kind at the table.
Adolphe Meyers, in his Post Graduate Cookery Book (1903), wrote that "many connoisseurs and epicureans prefer the ruddy duck to the redhead, claiming that it equals the canvasback in flavor. This bird has become scarce in late years, and its price went up in consequence."
In the 1900 book I go A-Marketing, Henrietta Sowle writes: "Another duck of delectable flavor is the ruddy duck or broadbill as it is known in some localities..."
Ruddy duck appears in all sorts of cookbooks from the mid-1800s to 1918, when market hunting was officially banned in the North America. This recipe is from my 1903 edition of Lily Haxworth Wallace's The Modern Cookbook and Household Recipes:
So how did the ruddy duck fall from grace? How did this duck, considered third only behind the mighty canvasback and the regal redhead, get tossed into the trash duck heap with fish-eaters like mergansers or goldeneyes?
No one seems to know. But I can guess. There is another "duck Bible" out there, J.C. Phillips's A Natural History of the Ducks, written in 1926—nearly a decade after market hunting ended. Phillips's words echo everything I've heard said about the ruddy, both in modern literature and from pretty much every other hunter I've ever spoken with:
Its intimate habits, its stupidity, its curious nesting customs and ludicrous courtship performance place it in a niche by itself... Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman.
Except flavor, it seems.
I decided to roast our ruddies as simply as I could, using my standard roast duck recipe, which is nothing more than salt, a little fat or oil, and a very hot oven. If a duck is going to taste "off," we'll know with this method, which hides nothing. So, after 15 minutes in a "quick" oven—500 degrees, to be exact—this is what the little ruddy looked like:
Holly A. Heyser
Crazy, eh? It's like an orb of duck. I can't pin it down for certain, but it appears that the origin of the term "butterball" is neither a turkey nor a bufflehead, but a ruddy duck. Ruddy ducks are an odd species all by themselves, oxyura rubida, not that closely related to mallards or even canvasbacks. It shows in the bone structure, which is stocky to the extreme.
So how did Mr. Ruddy taste? Wonderful, I am happy to report. Seven of our eight ducks were pretty fat, so I pricked the skin with a needle to help it render out. That melted duck fat mixed with the fleur de sel I sprinkled over the birds to make a perfect sauce—not fishy in the slightest.