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Making sure to clean the plate (11/09/2005)
by Tom Conroy

There is a song about a young boy tossing a baseball into the air. He swings the bat and misses. Again he tosses the ball into the air, swings and misses. Time and again, he swings and misses.

I imagine being that boy, feeling so dejected at not being able to hit that ball. And then I imagine my mother consoling me with the words, "My, but you're such a good pitcher!"

Mom was that way, always ready with compliments and words of encouragement. Except when it came to cleaning game birds.

Never could get those birds quite clean enough for Mom. I'd think I'd cleaned one to perfection and then she'd look it over. Somehow, she always managed to find a stray pin feather or a tiny bit of entrails I'd missed. Recently, I called Mom to tell her I had a couple of fresh mallard breasts for her. With Dad gone and most of her kids moved away, she didn't eat wild game much any more. But when she did, she enjoyed it as a special treat.

I took extra care to get every last pin feather and pellet from the breasts. When I brought the ducks to her, she looked them over carefully. And then, with that familiar smile and twinkle in her eye, she proclaimed them perfect. "About time," I replied, and we both laughed.

The next morning she called to say she wanted to fix the ducks for my brother and I to have that afternoon following the meeting to close on the sale of her house. That didn't happen. Instead, she wound up taking a helicopter ride to a Minneapolis hospital.

I forgot about the ducks until several days later. When I told Mom I had to throw them out, she felt personally responsible for the waste. Growing up in our house, you cleaned your plate. Food did not get thrown out. Not even liver! And especially not wild game.

As a youngster, I was taught early that you cleaned any game you shot. And then you ate it. You never, ever threw it away. It was all about respect for the animal and the long tradition of hunting.

Most hunters would never intentionally waste wild game meat. But it can happen. Sometimes, for example, when digging in the freezer for a pizza, a hand will reach deep down and latch onto a frozen clump, discovering a long-forgotten and now freezer-burned venison chop or pheasant. It can happen to even the most conscientious.

And there are those who, when the fish are biting or the ducks are pouring into the decoys, want to take advantage of the situation and "stock up." Although it's illegal, they may end up with two, three or more daily limits of game in the freezer. Worse yet, not all of that meat always gets eaten.

One recent evening, as a nurse set a tray of pureed food in front of her, Mom gave it a rather quizzical look and then turned toward me. "Not exactly roast duck, is it," she said with a chuckle. Not hardly.

A few days later Mom passed away. Soon thereafter I went to clean out her freezer. Among the frozen apple slices, TV dinners, stir fry and vegetables, I came across a package of walleye fillets I had brought her after a recent fishing trip. I took the fish home with me and placed them next to the few ducks and pheasants still left in my freezer.

One cold night soon I'll cook up a couple of those birds or fillets. And as I do, I'll think about the hunts or fishing trips that produced that food - who was there, where we were, the beauty of the outdoors, the weather and the dogs.

Mostly, however, I'll savor special memories of Mom. And even though the wild game dinners I make never seem to taste quite as good as hers always did, I'll make sure to clean the plate.



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