For people of the Jewish and Muslim faith, eating pork is a taboo. For vegans, it's meat and diary. I'm not a religious person, nor a vegetarian, but there is one self-imposed dietary restriction for me: I don't eat duck. The eating of duck has been a taboo that I have followed for over 30 years. But I recently broke the rule.
When I was eight years old I had a pet duck named Quacky and became obsessed with ducks. I read books about ducks, drew pictures of ducks on the borders of my home work and even dreamed about ducks. I started a duck lovers club in my backyard tool shed. Members paid a nickel and listened to me lecture about the different types of ducks in the world. There were Mallards and Domestic ducks and they, like Quacky, had webbed feet, I'd lecture members before running out of things to talk about. When I got Quacky for my eighth birthday, he was a tiny yellowish orange. But soon he grew large and into a white domestic who followed me around our suburban Los Angeles backyard, pecking at the slugs under the strawberry plants. I had a pet rat but Quacky was my favorite.
I had to go to Korea that summer so my parents made me take the duck and rat back to the pet store next to the El Monte airport. The storeowner, an old white man with a red face, handed me a few wrinkled dollars and said when I come back at the end of the summer, I can pay for the return of my pets. He looked at my parents and winked. I didn't understand the transaction. He said he'd take care of them for the summer. When I got back to the states at the end summer, we never went back to the pet store. My parents said that the pets were too much trouble to keep and that I should practice piano instead.
A year later, my family went to a fancy Chinese restaurant near downtown Los Angeles. They could have ordered anything from Moo-shu pork to Mongolian beef. Anything would be fine with me. Instead, they ordered a roasted duck. "Boy, Quacky sure does taste good," somebody joked. I didn't find it funny. I left the table, locked myself in the backseat of our Buick Regal and cried. I vowed never to eat duck. My friends know that eating duck is a taboo for me. In the Korean tradition, a pair of wooden ducks, often given to a newly wed couple, is seen as a symbol of romantic love. Ducks are sacred animals in my cosmology; they exist as a totem that will not be consumed. I like dogs and do not like cats, but I will not eat them either. When people tell me how delicious roasted duck is or how succulent duck can be, but I'd ignore them until now.
It's Saturday and I'm breaking my taboo. I've managed not to eat duck for three decades but have recently felt like trying. Partly out of curiosity and partly out of boredom. I drive to Chinatown by myself. It's bright on crowded Broadway Boulevard but the California sun has no warmth. I stand on the sidewalk and see nineteen roasted ducks in the window of Hop Woo BBQ Seafood Restaurant. The smell of garlic, soy sauce and incense mix together. I'm seated at a small round table while the waitress, a middle-aged Chinese woman in a sky blue Chinese dress, hands me a menu. On the cover of the menu are two silhouettes of ducks in flight. I order roasted duck, white rice and bok choy. The waitress brings me tea while I wait. A television in the corner plays Chinese karaoke pop videos while the bright lights glare on the shiny green tables. Paper lanterns hang over Asian, White, Latino and Black families eating lunch. I hear Spanish, Chinese, Armenian, Korean, Russian and some English.
Four minutes later, a plate with five slices of roast duck on a bed of white rice is put before me. I pick up a chopstick and grab a tiny piece of duck. I hesitate and take a deep breath through my nose. I put the piece in my mouth. It's crispy, slightly greasy but loaded with flavors. It tastes a bit like dark meat turkey, but different. The meat is a little salty but probably from the soy sauce it was cooked in. I find some bones and carefully spit them into my napkin. A second bite. Then another. Then another. It's the most delicious poultry I've ever eaten. I finish the slices, forgoing the steamed rice and vegetables accompanying the duck. Guilt swells within my heart. There are soy sauce stains on my shirt.
The ducks on the menu remind me of my favorite pet Quacky. I turn the menu over on the table.
"I'm sorry, Quacky," I whisper and slowly raise my hand.
I catch the attention of the waitress and order another plate of duck.