Pigeons. Dirty, annoying animals, yes? Not really. Don’t get me wrong, I am not likely to go chasing city piegons with an air rifle anytime soon — let alone poison the pigeons in the park, a la Tom Lehrer.
But there is nothing inherently wrong with eating Columbia livia, the rock dove. Yet even staunch hunters avoid them, which is a prime example of the sort of food prejudice the late UC Davis Professor Calvin Schwabe wrote about in his classic book, Unmentionable Cuisine. Why would a hunter who chases mourning doves and even Patagioenas fasciata, the band-tailed pigeon, turn his nose up at a rock dove? Madness.
This is especially galling when you consider that Americans used to be the pigeon-eatingest people in the world. Passenger pigeon, anyone? In 1860, a dozen passenger pigeons cost $1.25 ($29.61 in today’s dollars), according to an article I have from the May 19, 1860 edition of the New York Times. But now this bird is extinct — mostly because we cut down almost all of the Old Forest that once stretched from the Atlantic to the Great Plains, but wanton market hunting finished them off.
Although the passenger pigeons are gone, thousands of rock pigeons live wild in our rural areas, gorging themselves on seeds and waste grain and conveniently living in barns. Getting fat. And yummy.
I’ve hunted “Barnies,” as we call the rural versions of the common city pigeon, several times before. It’s always a good shoot. Once you find the birds, they are tough to bring down — pigeons are NOT doves and require hard-hitting shot — but they pluck easily (just dry pluck them) and look lovely ready for the roasting pan.
I am out of them now in my freezer, but that’s because I recently experimented with some Italian and Middle Eastern recipes for pigeons. I have several other pigeon and dove recipes here. The Old World isn’t nearly as squeamish about eating rock doves as we are now. The English love their wood pigeon, the French their squab (a domestic pigeon not allowed to fly very far), and both the Italians and Spanish eat their share.
In fact, pigeons appear in two of the most elaborate and prestigious dishes in Mediterranean cuisine: The “bomba” of rice and pigeon from Emilia-Romagna in Italy, and bisteeya, which has been called the quintessential dish of Moroccan cooking.
And it is the Muslim world, from Morocco to Persia, where pigeon comes into its own. Lots of Egyptians raise pigeons on top of their roof, and pigeon in this part of the world has historically been a meat of royalty, or at least wealth. Bisteeya is made with chicken amongst the poor, according to my two best sources on the subject, Clifford Wright’s A Mediterranean Feast, which any serious student of Mediterranean cooking needs to own, and Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. I hear Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco is excellent as well.
I did not make bisteeya for this post. Too taxing to make during hunting season, when I am out chasing ducks and pheasants (and pigeons) for much of my weekends. Better to make it once most of the hunting seasons are over; although hunters take note — there is no closed season on rock pigeons, so you can go after them anytime.
Instead I made another common dish in the Middle Eastern world: Stuffed roast pigeon. Morocco has its version, with raisins and pine nuts (sound familiar, Sicilians out there?) but I made the Turkish version, with fried onions and walnuts. Both are made with bulgur, a cracked wheat you most commonly see in tabbouleh.
It’s just like a miniature roast turkey; pigeon even tastes a bit like the thigh meat in a turkey.You make the stuffing, cook it, stuff some in the pigeon, and serve the rest as a bed for the bird to rest on. The stuffing in this case is a lot like tabbouleh, with mint and roasted red peppers, walnuts, and other yummy things. The bird is dusted with ground cardamom, cinnamon and allspice before serving, and is roasted to about 145-150 degrees — still a little pink.
If you are not a hunter, you can buy squab, a young domestic pigeon, online from the Squab Producers of California, which raises the best squab this side of France. At about $12 each, however, they aren’t cheap. You might find squab in Asian or Middle Eastern markets cheaper. Hunters, go out and shoot your own.
If you are using wild pigeons, I highly recommend you head to a butcher shop and order caul fat, which is a lacy fatty membrane from the inside of a pig. Wrap your pigeons in this and they will not dry out so much. Caul fat is a godsend for wild game cooks. If you can’t find caul fat, use knobs of butter and be sure to baste the pigeon during cooking.
(You can find the full Turkish roast pigeon recipe here.)
Why bother with this at all? Why not stick with chicken? Because squab, dove and pigeon offer something the other birds do not: Dense, rich, almost “beefy” meat without much fat. Even domestic squabs aren’t all that fat. The closest flavorwise you will get to pigeon is the thigh of a turkey or the breast meat of a duck. You could use duck in a pigeon recipe, but you need to watch the fat because even wild ducks can be too fatty.
Pigeon is also a cheap, plentiful source of good eats if you are a hunter. There’s no season or bag limit on them, they pluck easier than any bird other than their cousins the doves and are so filling even one will serve a diner for an entree.
Besides, isn’t the sight of a roast pigeon just beautiful?
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