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Image for the news item 'Fact or Fiction: Duck’s On! ' on 8 Feb 2021
Emma ducks on the scrounge at a General Admission garden party

Fact or Fiction? An occasional series examining the truth of some Emmanuel traditions

In this series of blogs, College Archivist, Amanda Goode, examines the origins of the myths and traditions of Emma. This week, she examines the myths around the sourcing of duck for College meals. 

Jokes about the origin of the duck that features regularly on Emmanuel’s menus are perennial, the inference being, of course, that it is stealthily sourced from within the college precinct. Writing some years ago about the food rationing that followed the Second World War, an Emmanuel Fellow recounted the popular rumour that ‘duck served at High Table around this time was reared very locally’, and similar stories abound. Is there any hard evidence, though, that the college ponds supplied the Kitchen with ducks after the war, or indeed at any other time?

As far as the wartime rationing is concerned, a perusal of the college’s menu books shows that while duck was frequently served at meals before the summer of 1939, it was very seldom on the menu during, or immediately after, the war (although the diners at High Table were occasionally confronted with novelties such as godwit, coot and knot). It was not until the late 1940s that duck once again became easily obtainable, and the Kitchen order books show that the main supplier, both before and after the war, was Pettitts of Reedham Ltd. This family firm, based in the Norfolk Broads, regularly sent the college large consignments of domestic and wild fowl, as well as game. The Paddock pond could never, in reality, have supported enough ducks to make much of a contribution to college meals, although an occasional brace may have been served up. It should be remembered, though, that Emma’s duck population used to be much smaller, because until the mid-1960s the pond was the domain of successive pairs of swans who did not tolerate too many feathered neighbours.

Some readers will have recognised the allusion, in the title of this piece, to the infamous closing scene of the ‘Gourmet Night’ episode of Fawlty Towers. One of Emmanuel’s own most celebrated gourmet nights was the Tercentenary Dinner held on 18 June 1884, on which occasion the showpiece was not duck, but four roast swans. The late Dr Frank Stubbings, college Fellow, speculated that the birds may have been ‘home-grown’, but it seems a little unlikely that the college would have sacrificed its swans to furnish the feast, for they were regarded as pets by the majority of resident members. In more recent times, though, there is evidence that culling was indeed sometimes contemplated. Recalling the period after the Second World War, Dr Stubbings noted that the swans produced an annual ‘bevy of cygnets’, adding the ambiguous comment that ‘the pond was too small for us to retain them into swanhood’. The Garden Committee’s minutes for the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s record its recurring exasperation at the fouling and damage to plants perpetrated by the ducks and swans, and on several occasions it recommended drastic action. In July 1946, for example, after the swans had repeatedly destroyed any new waterlily leaves as soon as they appeared, the Committee agreed that ‘the three cygnets should be consumed at High Table as soon as they were large enough’. The menu books contain no record of such a dish being served, however, so it may be that on this occasion, as on one or two others, the Garden Committee’s recommendations in respect of culling were overruled by the Governing Body.

After the pond was re-modelled in 1964 it no longer provided an attractive habitat for swans, and its only permanent avian residents since that time have been ducks and moorhens. For the last two or three years, though, a fecund pair of Canada geese have been regular summer visitors and the resultant besmirching of the Paddock lawns has been so repellent that a humane deterrent was deployed last year. The geese duly departed, only to return a fortnight later, cheekily bringing a couple of friends with them. The deterrent was used again, this time with lasting effect, but it will be interesting to see whether the Canadians come back this year. If they do, it might have to be a case of ‘Gosling’s On!’

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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