According to Alexandre Dumas, author of the classic adventure novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo as well as a lesser-known cookbook, Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, the Roman emperor Heliogabalus once feasted on a pâté made from the tongues of peacocks, nightingales, crows, pheasants, and parrots (paons, rossignols, corneilles, faisans, and perroquets). Yet that didn’t satisfy his appetite for strange flesh. Having heard of the existence of a magical bird named the phoenix, he was so consumed with the desire to eat its flesh that he promised a fortune in gold to whomever brought him one.
Like most chroniclers, Dumas regards Heliogabalus as one of Rome’s worst emperors, a corrupt hedonist who deserved his untimely assassination at age eighteen. But Dumas did not disregard all of Heliogabalus’s tastes. Although eating a phoenix was a step too far, throwing a raven into a bouillon might improve its palatability and osmazôme – a word that refers to an imaginary substance that gives stock its meatiness. According to the French, eating crow could be quite tasty.
It is Americans who made “eating crow” an idiom for self-abasement. According to William S. Walsh’s Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892) the expression may have been a pun on the French expression manger la crotte – pronounced cro – which means to eat shit. Another derivation story traces the expression to an unfortunate incident involving a Civil War soldier. But most agree that the expression stems from the American belief that crows taste especially bad. Eating crow is a very unpleasant meal.
In the 1850s, American adventurer James Gilchrist Swan experimented with crow as a substitute for Christmas turkey during his residence in Washington Territory. He found the meat too tough to enjoy, even after it had been baked in a sea-pie with onions, salt pork, potatoes, and dumplings. Swan preferred almost all the other unusual meats he ate during his sojourn near Shoalwater Bay, including eagle, hawk, owl, gull, pelican, lynx, otter, beaver, and seal. Only skunk was worse than crow, with a smell so bad that his chef was forced to throw away the pot it had been cooked in.
Today, the few North Americans who eat crow are mostly, unsurprisingly, of the French persuasion. Montreal-trained chef Frederic Cyr has a recipe for corneilles épicée aux asperges et au fromage (spicy crow with asparagus and cheese). Chef Jean Olivier at Restaurant Sagamité in Quebec, specializing in First Nations cuisine, offers video instructions on how to cook corneille rôtie sauce au bacon. The end results looks tasty. I would happily dig in if I didn’t know what I was eating. Otherwise, no matter how nice, I am not sure that I want to eat crow.
According to a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear, author of the forthcoming book Anything That Moves, my reluctance to eat crow sets me apart from the most radical fringe of contemporary American foodie culture. As the United States grew in affluence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the range of meats deemed acceptable for eating in American culture narrowed increasingly until we were left with the holy trinity of chicken, beef, and pork. In reaction to this impoverishment of choices – and its association with the dominance of Big Ag companies like Tyson Foods – today’s culinary counter-culture seeks to eat meats that have been discarded from our diets as unfit for consumption. Crow fits right in alongside insects and frog fallopian tubes, two of the foods that Goodyear samples.
Goodyear’s article (I haven’t read the book yet, which isn’t out for another week), makes an interesting point about the ambiguities within the ethical argument for expanding our list of edible animals. Proponents of nose-to-tail eating and game meats argue that these dietary practices result in less waste and less reliance on ecologically destructive farming practices. However, the constant search for new tastes also inspires renegade foodies to try forbidden meats, such as whale, that common consensus – with some important dissents – views as too sentient to kill. Breaking free from the strait-jacket of the modern diet is not always a good thing.
I am less persuaded, as a historian, by Goodyear’s claim that the hunt for new animals to eat is a modern phenomenon. As Dumas points out, Heliogabulus was up to the same tricks in the third century A.D. The dude was so out there he wanted to eat phoenix!
The limitations of the ordinary American diet at the beginning of the twentieth century was a central reason that an earlier generation of “foodies” found such adventure in eating French cuisine, which didn’t seem to have suffered the same constriction. A predecessor of Goodyear’s at The New Yorker, the great A. J. Liebling, swooned over the endless variety of foods to be found in Paris’s restaurants when he was a student at the Sorbonne in 1926-7. Take fish for example. Not only did Liebling enjoy the sole, turbot, salmon, trout, rouget, and loup de mer he found at more expensive restaurants, he gobbled up the fresh herring, sardine sauce moutarde, colin froid mayonnaise, conger eel en matelote, whiting en colère, skate, dorade, and fried goujons and ablettes (little fish caught in the Seine) that were served at the cheaper endroits. It was Liebling who called my attention to Dumas’s recommendation for adding crow to a bouillon. A braver eater than me, Liebling was disappointed that he never found a crow in the pot au feu at his favourite small restaurant to grab dinner on a Saturday night, Chez Benoit.
At least I share Liebling’s enthusiasm for the variety of fish available in Paris. Each trip to the poissonier is an adventure in new eats. The first cooked dinner I made in our Paris apartment was a true bouillabaisse using rascasse, a Mediterranean fish that I’ve never been able to buy in North America. I’ve also begun sampling my way through the wide array of flat fish that the French seem to favor – if only I could figure out how to prepare them without leaving so many bones in the meat. Then there are the fish with unfamiliar names like chinchard, maigre, and moulet noir, which maybe I have eaten before but I couldn’t swear to it. (Once I brought home a beautiful merlan only to discover that it was whiting – and just as bland as always.) And I’ve barely begun on the shellfish: not just mussels, clams, and oysters, but cockles, periwinkles, snails and even goose-neck barnacles.
If eating crow doesn’t call to me, I am looking forward to sampling all the game birds in the butcher’s case. Last week was pheasant. Next up will be the perdrix (partridge), which I had once at a gastropub in Bath (yum!). I am curious to try the hare as well, although I’m not sure I’m brave enough to jug it (cook it in a sauce of its own blood). I also haven’t made up my mind yet about whether to try horse. It’s sold everywhere in Paris, from the supermarket to the outdoor markets. I understand the ethical argument that we shouldn’t eat companion animals, but I am not certain I feel bound by it. After all, many people keep rabbits as pets and I’m happy to eat them any which way.
Not all Paris culinary adventures take an animal form. The vegetable market also holds many new tastes. I’m slowly sampling all the wild mushrooms on offer. We started with the familiar girolles (which Americans call chanterelles, although the French use that name for a different mushroom). Then we moved onto cêpes (porcini), pieds de moutons (lambs feet), and trompette de la mort (trumpet of the dead). Less glamorous than mushrooms, but just as tasty, have been cerfeuil tubereux (chervil root) and tobinampour (Jerusalem artichoke), also new to me.
But my adventurousness has its limits. Motivated primarily by taste, rather than by an ethical commitment to a new logic of eating, I am guided in my food purchases by what appeals to my biased appetite. If I don’t have a hankering for crow I am not going to eat it just for the experience. Thankfully, in Paris there are enough new foods that do appeal to me that I don’t need to try those that don’t.