Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 16th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 16th: Ducks

There is one group for whom Christmas is not exactly a joyful time of year. It’s the exact opposite if anything. I refer, of course to the fowls.  That’s ‘fowls’, no ‘Fowlers’, the desperately unlucky Eastenders family, although it works for them too, as it probably does for any British soap opera family at Christmas.

But even more than unfortunate fictional families, fowls (Galleiforms, if you prefer) have good reason to fear Christmas, as it pretty much translates to ‘mass slaughter’ for them. Something about Christmas makes humans, in the west, at least, want to consume the flesh of a deceased relatively-obese bird. Not that we don’t do that at other times of year of course, but it becomes a bit more intense at Christmas time.

Turkey has to bear the brunt of the festive lust for flesh, although chickens come in for it too, but then when do they not? This is likely to be a result of Christmas occurring in the past when meat was somewhat more of a luxury, rather than something that you can find discarded in gutters the morning after the day people beak up for work. If the quantity of meat was the priority, rather than the quality, then it’s no wonder Turkey came to the forefront of holiday foodstuffs, usually being the biggest, chunkiest of the fowls. Although given Christmases pagan roots, it does make you wonder where this whole ‘kill something big and consume its flesh’ ritual originally came from.

If that’s a bit of a dark way of thinking of things, I have precedent. Coming from a small Welsh village, by family growing up were part of a small rural community where ovens large enough to cook whole turkeys were very rare. I’m told that, on Christmas eve, it was normal for groups of the women to travel with their Turkeys en-masse to the local crematorium, which wasn’t in use at that time of year. You can figure the rest out for yourself.

I have no evidence to back this up, it’s purely anecdotal. But still, put’s sprouts into perspective, doesn’t it?

But apparently, before Turkey (in the UK at least), it was goose. This makes sense; goose can be obtained in Britain, whereas Turkey is indigenous to America. And it’s a fairly hefty bird which, like turkey, doesn’t really get a lot of sympathy from people, as they’re believed to be nasty, unpleasant creatures. But this does draw up the fowl/waterfowl disparity.

One bird that seems to get off relatively lightly at Christmas (but not completely) is the humble duck. People have a bit of a soft spot for ducks, with their comical waddles and lust for bread. It’s possible to interact with ducks in a pleasing, slaughter-free environment, so they are relatively innocuous.

Although maybe that’s not it? Maybe ducks are largely avoided, and goose was replaced so readily, as festive food, because waterfowl (anseriformes, if you like) are relatively very fatty. Cooking and eating them is, therefore, more of a chore. Goose fat, which is smokeless, is still used to roast things, but it’s been separated from the goose long beforehand.

Evolution-wise, this makes perfect sense. If you end up spending a lot of time in the water, being made up of substances that increase buoyancy/insulation is obviously going to be an advantage. So ducks and geese are packed with fat, which is made up of a variety of fatty acids, which are hydrophobic and insulating.

Interesting chemistry anecdote, apparently fatty acids were originally called aliphatic acids, but during the preparation of a paper in the early days there was some dictation issues and the person typing it up thought, reasonably enough, that they were called ‘fatty acids’. The name stuck, for obvious reasons. (My chemistry teacher told me this, I don’t have a reference)

Also, did you know a ducks quack doesn’t echo? Well you shouldn’t, because it does.

So, ducks are like the new expensive toy that children want for Christmas. Looks cool, should be fun, but a lot more complicated and fiddly when you realise how many bits are involved, and it never does exactly what you think it should

Twitter: @garwboy


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