Kitchn Love Letters

Why Edna Lewis’ Roast Duckling with Red Rice Is the Star of My Thanksgiving Table This Year

published Nov 24, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Red rice and oyster stuffing duck in roasting pan.
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

This isn’t my first Thanksgiving away from my home and family, but it will be an exceptionally different one because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In the past, my partner and I have made our own Thanksgiving traditions by incorporating a few favorite dishes from each of our families in Charleston, South Carolina, alongside the dishes that represent our own current, individual tastes. Usually this means things like seafood dressing, smothered turkey wings, greens, cornbread, and some other type of meat (usually lamb, goat, or another type of poultry).

Thanksgiving this year will be no different — but I’ll also have some time (and almost a need) to experiment in the kitchen. I am craving the comfort of my hometown, and I can only be satiated by standing over the stove for hours conjuring up the flavors of family.

Like many others during the pandemic, I’ve been at home pretty much all day every day this year, which also means I’ve been burying my head in as many books I could possibly get my eyes on to pass up the time. The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock was the first of Ms. Lewis’ books I’d ever read through, but I had never really had the time to divulge in depth and really go through the entire work — until now. All of Lewis’ books are based around the seasons, and how she ate as a kid growing up in Freetown, Virginia. And as the seasons have changed in my current town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’ve enjoyed picking up pieces out of the book here and there.

When I was planning Thanksgiving, I read ahead in the book and came back across a recipe for roast duckling stuffed with red rice and oysters. I had it dog-eared already (I know, I’m a monster), but now I actually had the time and opportunity to look at it more in depth and decided that, that was what I was making for Thanksgiving. I’ll still have some sort of turkey on the table, but this year the duck will be the centerpiece that will hopefully become a new tradition in the years to come.

I was initially drawn to this recipe, because it’s a mishmash of distinctly different Southern cultures that comes together for a wonderful meal. My own background is a bit mixed up as well, so it felt appropriate to bring a meal to the table that represented the many parts of myself and the way my partner and I eat. I grew up with the firm belief that stuffing and dressing are two different dishes, and that you shouldn’t actually stuff your Thanksgiving bird with anything but a few aromatics (my great grandma said the bird and stuffing would spoil quickly otherwise). We always ate dressing in my family, cooked with the drippings from the bird (but cooked separately from the turkey). And so when Scott Peacock mentioned in the recipe’s headnotes for the roast duckling that in “Alabama, we never put stuffing in poultry,” I knew I’d found a recipe I would enjoy making not only for the sake of its ingredients, but also for the sake of familiarity. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Oysters and seafood are always abundant in coastal areas in the South, and are eaten every way possible, so oysters in my dressing wasn’t a new experience for me either. But what really got me was the fact that I’d never thought to stuff a game bird, or any bird of any kind, with red rice — a flavorful and favorite rice dish from the Lowcountry in the Southeast United States, that my partner and I are both fond of and grew up eating.

Red rice is one of those dishes that not everyone is trusted with making; it takes a skilled hand to make it perfectly, and recipes are never passed out beyond family members. Maybe I’m just used to having my red rice — full of tomato, peppers, onions, and smoked meat (amongst other things ) — as a side or meal on its own. Maybe I just don’t possess the culinary genius quite yet to have considered making it any other way than I was shown. Seeing it as a stuffing with duck and oysters, however, set off something in my mind that I won’t be able to let go of until I make it on my own.

In the late ’80s, Edna Lewis worked at the Middleton Place restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where she created menus that shed light on historical and local plantation cooking. She’d been there many years before I was even thought of, and had been an important part of the culinary world even longer than that. Her impact on the way not only I, but so many other Southern chefs and Black chefs in particular, cook and explore foodways has been monumental to say the least. So to see her using ingredients that were familiar to me, knowing that she took her time to learn and make red rice (a simple recipe that many never master), it just felt right to put it on my own Thanksgiving menu this year as an alternative to the same ol’ dishes we usually have. 

Everything seems very different and a bit strange for the holidays this year, but making this roast duckling stuffed with red rice and oysters is a comfort. By invoking, hopefully, a bit of Ms. Lewis’ spirit alongside the dishes of my partner and I’s own family and cultures — as well as the spirit of hundreds of years of Southern culture — I’ll bring a little bit of familiarity and normalcy to such a trying and almost surreal time.