He seemed like a nice-enough fellow, but all of a sudden Jean Fourcade was telling me to eat crow.
I had met Fourcade, an attache at the French embassy, in a luncheon encounter that grew into a discussion of American food prejudices, which he finds amusing.
"We ate crows during the war and were very glad to get them," he said. "It wasn't just that meat was so scarce, the flavor was very fine, equal to any number of game birds. It is a regional delicacy in Europe."
He shrugged and sighed most Gallicly. "I suppose you think I'm having you on."
I thought he probably was, so foul is the reputation of the crow. But I once unsuspectingly ate and enjoyed a turkey vulture (which my funloving host passed off as a road-killed wild turkey), and that has led to a general crumbling of my fastidiousness about food. The next day I went hunting on a Warrenton farm alleged by its owner to be crawling with crows.
"What you want is young crows," Fourcade had said. "The older ones (they live 10 years or more) tend to be rather tough and require long cooking."
After several hours in a biting wind, trying first to stalk and then to ambush the great black birds around a cattle feed lot, what I wanted was any crow. Never having hunted them before, I had neglected to bring along decoys or a call; as a straight-up battle of wits it was turning out to be no contest.
Part of my problem was halfheartedness. The only justification for hunting is to eat what one kills, and so if I took a crow home I was committed to consume it, rather than just taste. A little research into the genus Corvus had not been promising.
The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, has reached back past A.D. 700 without finding a kind word for the handsome and successful bird beyond his cross-country efficiency. "As the crow flies" has always meant by the shortest way. Otherwise the crow has gotten a uniformly bad press since Aesop.
"Crowbait" is something not fit to cast before swine; in hollow victory, a man "triumpheth like a crow in a gutter"; in Australia a "crow-eater" is a lazy fellow who lives on anything rather than work.Eating crow as symbolic of being forced to do something "extremely disagreeable and humiliating" is an Americanism, presumably based on folk wisdom, that has been adopted throughout the English speaking world.
The only encouraging note was that the crow is cousin to the bird of paradise, but this was overshadowed by the rascal's reputation as a nest-robbing, crow-depredating eater of carrion. This scavenging probably lies at the heart of our anticrowism, but it is widely inaccurate to assume that a creature takes on the flavor of its food. Quail eat bugs by the bushel, and fish-eating ducks don't taste fishy.
As the day wore on the matter seemed likely to be mooted by the cleverness of the crows that wheeled and cawed over the farm. Not one came within extreme range; like gun-shy geese they consistenty swung a hundred yards wide of me, whether in the open field or -- I thought -- concealed. As the light waned I took a few starlings (which are delicious) and headed for the car. It was too much for one sassy trio of crows to resist. They swooped in low behind, and one let out a caw in my ear that almost made me drop the shotgun. Reflexively, I swung on the lead bird and saw the last one fall.
So there is was.
"To have a crow to pluck" with someone, saith the OED, is to have some awkward matter to settle. Be that as it may, to literally have a crow to pluck is to have your work cut out for you. Although but 18 inches long and hefting about half a pound, the crow seemed to have the feathers of a turkey and the down of a goose. It took hot wax and singeing to get the bird bare.
If crow is a French delicacy nobody has told Julia Child about it, nor was the bird mentioned in any of my game cookbooks. Even The Joy of Cooking let me down.
Calls to several wildlife experts yielded plenty of chuckles but no cooking tips. None had tried crow or ever heard of anyone's doing so, but all had nice things to say about the bird's role in nature's scheme.
"Until fairly recently it was the policy of the United States Government to exterminate crows as crop parasites and general varmints," said one Fish & Wildlife Service biologist. "Now we have come to realize that the insects and small rodents they eat more than make up any crop losses. Eggs and nestlings make up less than one percent of their diet. They're smart and successful birds, high in the evolutionary order and very adaptable."
"They're great game birds, except that nobody eats them," a Virginia game manager said. "They're big and abundant yet fast and wary flyers, and crows are among the most heavily hunted birds. I hope you can get people to try eating them, because it's a damn shame so many are shot and wasted."
"Well, come on over and we'll cook this one and try it," I said.
"Thanks just the same," he said.
At last and as usual I turned to Roland Bouyat, chef of Washington's Bread Oven restaurant, who so far has been unflappable when presented with unusual game.
"This bird, it is not young," he said, holding it by the beak. "A soup, perhaps, you think? Or braise him until he is tender?"
"I dunno. We ought to keep it simple, because the point is to learn the flavor."
"D'accord," he said dubiously, twitching his moustaches. "But it is upon your head."
Bouyat dusted the crow with salt and pepper, wrapped it in thin sheets of lard to keep if from drying out, and roasted it for half an hour in a 450 degree oven. M. Fourcade was invited, as instigator of the affair, but pleaded a cold. "Your overheated, stuffy buildings, you know," he said. "But be of good heart."
The crow sat before us on the plate. We picked at the lard cracklings, which were good, but soon they were gone and only the bird remained. Onlookers had gathered.
"It is handsome there," the chef said. "The smell it is pleasant, no?"
"Oh yes," I said. "Looks good." Several minutes passed. The onlookers onlooked.
"Allons, mon ami," he said. It grows cold."
We had ate it. The crow was delicious, unique but reminiscent of wild goose.
"I would be happy to see again on my table this bird," Bouyat said. "The flavor is very fine and rich. But unless it was the young, tender bird I would make the soup, or braise him for a couple of hours. But this crow, he is a fine thing to eat. Could you get some more, you think?"
"I think," I said.