Tag Archives: eighteenth century

Forgotten Foods #1: The House Sparrow

The very cute Passer domesticus

I do like to see a social group of tweeting house sparrows getting into fights, taking a nice dust bath, or whatever; they are so watchable. They are one of my favourite birds. Once extremely common in Britain, their numbers have dropped sharply in last few years and nobody really seems to know why. In the past they were plentiful and were commonly served up at the dinner table. In fact many songbirds were counted as legal game and were very popular indeed. Here’s a delicious-sounding recipe from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for sparrow dumplings:

Mix half a pint of good milk with three eggs, a little salt, and as much flour as will make a thick batter. Put a lump of butter rolled in pepper and salt in every sparrow, mix them in the batter and tie them in a cloth, boil them one hour and a half. pour melted butter over them and serve it up.

Over the pond in New York, the plague of house sparrows became very bad indeed: Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow said WL Dawson in 1903. Something had to be done! The people of the ever-trendy The New York Times encouraged folk to help rid the place of the pests, and not to let good protein go to waste, they tried to make them appear as an attractive and sought-after meat:

English Sparrows are being properly appreciated. Hundreds of them are now caught by enterprising people for sale to certain restaurants where reed birds are in demand. A German woman on Third Avenue has three traps set every day, and she catches probably seventy five a week. They are cooked and served to her boarders the same as reed birds and are declared quite as great a delicacy. This German woman bastes them, leaving the little wooden skewer in the bird when served. They are cooked with a bit of bacon. She tempts them with oats, and after the catch they are fed a while with boiled oaten meal. She sprinkles oaten meal in the back yard also, and thereby fattens the free birds. … So soon as it becomes known that the Sparrow is a table bird their number will rapidly grow less.
People don’t like to experiment, but when it is discovered that the Sparrow has been declared good by those upon whom they have been tried, no boarding house meal will be deemed in good form unless a dish of fat Sparrows adorns it. Sparrow pie is a delicacy fit to set before a king.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the date of the article – if anyone knows, please let me know.

I am not that well-travelled compared to many, but here in America, and in the African countries I have visited, the house sparrow is just everywhere. To do your part to rid these continents of the ubiquitious little bastards, may I suggest getting your hands on the Dodson Sparrow Trap:




Filed under Eighteenth Century, food, Game, history, Meat, Recipes

Charles Darwin and the Owl

When I am not writing blog entries, I actually work for a living – believe it or not. I am an evolutionary biologist at the wonderful Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Now it goes without saying that, as an evolutionary biologist I have a huge amount of respect for a certain Charles Darwin who came up with his theory of evolution by natural selection.

However, before he made his amazing discovery whilst floating about the oceans upon the HMS Beagle, he spent four years at Christ College, Cambridge, cutting his scholarly teeth and collecting beetles. He also spent alot of time getting drunk on port. But don’t think that Darwin was a conservationist. Such a concept did not exist in his day, oh no.

For what you may not know is that Charles Darwin had a huge interest in food, and during his time in Cambridge he was the President of the  infamous Glutton Club. The main objective of the club was to seek and eat ‘strange flesh’ and chow down upon the rarest ‘birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate’. The club met weekly and was a roaring success. They ate such beautiful birds as the bittern and hawk. The club eventually came to an abrupt end when a tawny owl was served up. The meat was disgusting and stringy and was described as, er, “indescribable”.

‘Indescribable’: the tawny owl

Rarity and beauty of the animals aside, I don’t think I could eat an owl or a hawk. There is something very disagreeable to me about eating carnivores. I want to tackle animals that have fed upon dewy grasses and juicy leaves or whatever.

Anyway, all this Gluttony put old Charlie in good stead for his voyages: for he had no qualms about eating animals like ostrich and armadillo, which he said ‘look and taste like duck’. I like duck. The next time I see some armadillo roadkill I should pick it up and have it for my dinner, no? He also had some unknown mystery 20 pound rodent that he declared to be ‘the best meat I have ever tasted’. Maybe it was a capybara?

Capybara: the mystery meat?

The best story I have found about Darwin’s dinners occurred during a Christmas feast where he realised the bird was dining upon was a very rare small species of rhea (later named Darwin’s rhea). He rose abruptly from his chair and quickly scraped the remaining parts of the carcass together so that he could study them much to the shock of the other guests.

Always the scientist, our Chuck D was.

Darwin’s Rhea by Diane Sudyka


Filed under food, history, science, The Victorians