Birds have always provided food for thought as well as for the table…” (qtd. in Mason xviii).
I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
No creatures have dually captivated the mind and enchanted the world’s palette like birds. They have stirred the poetic as well as the gastronomical imagination, from the noble eagle to the ubiquitous chicken. One may even argue that humankind would not be what it is without them. Is it because they tend to inspire us more than other animals – especially other food animals? Is it the allure of their flight, the beauty of their plumage and song, or the glorious perfection with which they grace our tables every holiday season? Regardless of the reason, the bird is the ideal vector through which to experience a deeper relationship with our food and a reconnection with the nature it comes from.
Birds are said to be the most visible of wildlife – readily observable even in the most urban settings. The world’s cuisine features not only the flesh of birds but also their eggs and more, in the case of dishes like bird’s nest soup. I have been thinking about birds often because I see them every morning, feeding on the suet I hung from the cherry tree outside my window. Every day, I think about how the fat, nuts, and seeds gives them the extra energy they need in the cold winter months, and I can’t help but think about how eating a turkey leg or chicken soup also keeps me going. There’s a kind of symbiosis at work.
Birds have always found me wherever I’ve gone, from the songbirds of rural Hunterdon County, to the fish-grabbing osprey of the Jersey shore, the magpies and kookaburras at dawn in Australia, to all the vultures, hawks, eagles, and owls that never cease to amaze me. Even the humble house sparrow is like a ray of sunshine in my life. It’s only natural that my amazement should extend to my culinary endeavors. One of my first, biggest food realizations came about because of birds. I was about five years old and as I watched my mother carve meat off the carcass of an oven stuffer roaster, I asked, “What is chicken?” To my bewilderment, she explained that it was a bird. This is how I came to understand that animals are used as food.
To me, there are few greater gastronomic pleasures than cooking with a whole bird. A duck, chicken, or turkey, rubbed with lard or duck fat, sprinkled with a fine salt, and graced with herbs is a fantastic dinner, and the leftovers make a rich, nourishing soup. All the animal is represented and honored: meat, skin, bones, even giblets for gravy or, in my case, to enjoy while the rest is cooking (from organic and pastured animals only). Cooking a whole bird also forces you to accept that it was once a living creature, as the body is mostly whole and still recognizable. There’s nothing gross about it; it’s beautiful and demands gratitude.
Whether you’re feeding the birds or feeding on birds, there is an unavoidable connection between us and these creatures. It makes us think about where our food comes from and how our need for sustenance ties us to other creatures of nature. May they continue to inspire our imaginations, enliven the environment, and give our gustatory aspirations wings.