Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Pigeon Populations in European Cities

In the mid-1400's, the waning Hundred Years' War and the brutal Wars of the Roses left much of Europe, and England in particular, with greatly reduced populations. With nations eager to boost their numbers, various folklore traditions emerged regarding fertility. One popular myth linking pigeon consumption and fecundity emerged in London, from which it spread through most major European cities.

So great was the demand for pigeons that it drove quite a few technological and culinary advancements. The two most enduring developments from the 15th-century pigeon mania were the invention of crampons and gravy.

While the wealthier individuals could maintain private coops, for most people the typical pigeon on the plate was a wild bird. Pigeon wranglers had to locate and reach the wild pigeon rookeries, which necessitated new wall-climbing technologies. Eye-bolts were installed in many walls, and notches, called "pigeon toe-holds" (the origin of a common expression), were cut into many outside corners. The crampon (invented in Prague in the year 1483) allowed pigeon hunters to quickly attach to and release from installed eye bolts, without the need to repeatedly tie and untie knots. Hunters with this technology could collect many more birds than their competition, bringing in more profit.

We owe the existence of gravy to the foul taste of pigeon, especially the wild variety. Cooks would experiment widely with different ways to mask the taste of wild pigeon, preferably with something with superior flavor. Early gravies, being experimental, were largely pastiches of whatever was at hand.

The word "pastiche," in fact, derives from these culinary experiments. One early (and not particularly successful) gravy used orzo as a thickening agent, and crushed cherries as the flavoring. The resulting concoction was called "pasta and cherries," which was shortened to the portmanteau "pastiche."

The end of widespread pigeon consumption is credited to King Henry VIII of England. Concerned with his legacy, he consumed at least three pigeons in gravy with every meal (breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper). In spite of this, he produced only three children, largely discrediting the pigeon consumption-fecundity link. Further, his death was the result of choking on a pigeon bone while enjoying a midnight snack. This was widely publicized at the time, though the official histories covered this up with a less embarrassing cause of death, namely syphilis.

Because of the taste and proven lack of efficacy, pigeon consumption dropped precipitously. With a century of cultivating the wild birds, most cities possessed sufficiently large breeding populations that pigeon eradication became impossible. One early attempt involved introducing hawks to Paris, but this was quickly ended when the hawks began preying on poodles. Since then, pigeons have become an endemic part not only of European cities, but (due to long-distance shipping) major cities throughout the world.

1 comment:

Julie said...

My favorite part is where the hawks preyed on the poodles ... ha!