He waddled with such determination that I soon realized this was a duck to be reckoned with.
Although he was tiny and barely feathered, I felt resolve in his stance, making him stand out instantly amongst his cramped, fuzzy siblings.
After all, I had looked high and low for him and it wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly.
Only the best duck would do.
As a small child I remembered cuddling with a fluffy, bright yellow rendition of this fellow. It lay balanced on my head as the final pièce de résistance of my stuffed animal sculpture I’d require to be piled on top of me at bedtime. My mother would have to re-do the entire floppy monument if it was not properly topped with Sealy, the seal, Lady, the dog, and my washed-out duck, who remained nameless but held honorary peek position atop my nose.
Only then would I be safe from the perils of nighttime and go to sleep.
My destiny with ducks grew, quietly fueled by my close childhood friend Raquel and her displaced obsession with the creatures.
Adults questioned her fascination.
We were not children growing up in rural Maine, traipsing amongst cattle and cornfields, but rather, urbanites raised in the metropolis of Caracas, a fast-paced, fume-congested city sprouting up buildings quicker than a weed will grow on a riverbank.
The closest things to ducks were the stray dogs roaming the street for scraps of food.
Still, Raquel seemed a wildflower equally displaced in this grandiose city and when she tired of saving beetles and stick bugs and ants from all the metal and concrete surrounding them she longed for a duck. As her best friend and a teenager in dire need for shock attention I made it my feat to get her one.
At first, I innocently believed it would be as easy as going to the store and buying one.
But the eyes of the lady at the brightly lit, aseptic pet shop crammed with crates of overpriced, exotic dogs went flat when I turned down the 8-week old Canadian Eskimo puppy (a purebred, she guaranteed, waving the papers to prove it) and insisted I wanted a duck.
“Un pato?”, she asked, confused and deflated.
“Si, un pato,” I announced, forcing my heart to not get disoriented by all the canine cuteness.”Ay, mijita, aqui no hay patos, solo perros”, which roughly translated to, ‘you’re on your own kid’, and was the send off to my newfound obsession: securing a duck for my beloved friend’s fifteenth birthday.
“You sure you don’t want to get her a pretty necklace?” my mother gingerly offered, no doubt taking cues from the feel-good “how-to-raise-a-teenager” books I’d seen slowly stacking on her bedside table. The books promised my mother that the secret to a successful relationship with your teenager was allowing them their space to make their own decisions while kindly reinforcing the sound resolution of an adult’s level-headed view, something she felt quite applicable in this circumstance. My rebuttal to level-headed thinking was a full eye roll (I’d gotten pretty good at those). Plus, I knew the idea was crazy and had no logical argument.
We spent the following days feverishly searching for a duck.
All the pet stores looked at me with pity or amusement or a careful combination of both, but with every rejection I became more determined to somehow bless my friend with this furry creature. I received some reprieve when, leaving the last pet shop on my list, the owner suggested I go to the local market on the outskirts of the city and try my luck there.
Local markets today are, of course, very politically correct places, conjuring up images of tenderly cared-for animals and ferociously organic crops banding together against the supersized evils of the mechanized food industry.
But “local market” on the outskirts of
Caracas in the 80s meant a very different, grungy affair where, quite frankly, getting to the location unscathed was half the battle.
My mother insisted my father visit the market alone but this request only fumed my desire to go more and my father couldn’t turn down the rare opportunity of his teenage daughter begging to spend time with him, even if it meant getting mugged. At least it would make for a memorable, bonding story.
So, in the earliest weekend hours of Raquel’s birthday we headed to the farthest outskirts of the poorest neighborhood and made our way down dirty aisles crowded with stands selling fresh coconut water, lingerie, and miniature saints, amongst other things.
When the toothless woman realized we weren’t buying a hand-carved statue of Jose Gregorio Hernandez (honored for his healing powers and guaranteed to cure all that ails in life) she reluctantly directed us to a tiny, rickety stand between the rosemaries and the spare blender parts where Raquel’s long-awaited surprise was housed in a crushed cardboard box.
The baby duck seemed relieved to see me, quickly waddling towards me and away from his brothers and sisters as if reprimanding me for being late in getting him.
I picked him up, handed the owner an exuberant amount of money and began heading back to the car, briefly stopping for a sliver of coconut cake.
The cake was sweet and delicious, swarming my taste buds with joy and victory:
a definite celebration to a long fought search. Each bite was soaked in syrupy coconut milk and perfectly chilled, coming out of an auspicious cooler packed with smoking dry ice.
I asked no questions about its origin or the fact that such a cake could have had such perfect timing (for my stomach was now aching with hunger), but rather, closed my eyes and enjoyed every bite of it while my father nervously glanced in the direction of the car hoping its hubcaps where not one of the newest additions dangling off a wire in the car stands down row 3.
I cradled the frightened creature under my jacket keeping him safe from the swarm of human life that bustled around us.
It was just barely nine o’clock in the morning.
No doubt Raquel would not be up for another two hours, but the thought of keeping this perfectly fuzzy secret from her for any more time felt unbearably impossible a feat and it was, after all, her birthday.
We made our way to her house, where to the shock and dismay of her parents (who must have read the same how-to-deal-with-adolescents book that allowed for space but gently guided reason) I produced a baby duck from inside my grey Member’s Only jacket.
“Is Raquel up?” was all I managed to plead.
It seemed to be enough. I am not sure if it was my big blue eyes (probably not, her parents had grown used to me playing those up), or the fragile fuzzy duck trembling in my hands, or simply the generous, good-hearted spirit that has always easily flowed from both her parents, but whatever the motive was, it melted their look of apprehension into one of acceptance as they made way for me and my gift to pass.”She’s not, honey, but why don’t you go on ahead and wake her up for this” her mom said.
And with that, I skipped, ever so carefully, with my trophy gift, a smile on my face, and what I knew for sure, would be the best birthday wake up present to date.
Sweet Coconut Cake
Inspired from the Venezuelan national dessert, "Bienmesabe" which literally translates to "It Tastes Good To Me and is the pinnacle of the country's fixation with coconut: from delicious and healthy coconut water, to coconut candy to this lusciously sweet delight.
Make this the night before serving so the flavors have time to blend and the cake to chill.
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup shortening
1 ¼ cup milk
3 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Heat oven to 350F.
Prepare the cake.
In a large bowl, beat all ingredients together on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly.
Beat on high speed for three minutes.
Pour batter into a greased 13 x 9 x 2 pan.
Bake 35-40 minutes
Meanwhile, mix the milk mixture ingredients together (see below).
As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, cut into 20 squares and pour milk mixture over the cake, allowing the cake to absorbe completely.
Serve with a sprinkling of shredded coconut.
1 (15-ounce) can cream of coconut (Coco Lopez)
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup dark rum
Preheat oven to 350F
Makes 20 servings