Most people are quite familiar with the image of a pigeon, a bird commonly seen in the courtyards and barnyards across the globe. But just what exactly is a “utility pigeon”?
A good place to begin an investigation is with the origin of the word pigeon. It is “pijon” in old french, meaning “young dove”, and “pipio” in Latin, or “young chirping bird”. Another clue can be found in the definition of utility, which means useful, beneficial, or profitable. Our good friend the pigeon is all of that, and more, and can certainly meet those basic requirements.
Utility Pigeon is a general term that is broadly applied to describe any breed of domestic pigeon that is kept primarily for the production of meat. Sometimes referred to as “working birds”, they are capable of producing an adequate number of young, or squabs, of suitable weight and quality to justify their production costs.
By their nature, some breeds of pigeons are more productive, and profitable, than others. Pigeons in general have been intensively and selectively bred for many centuries, with many breeds falling in and out of favor along with the whims of the times and other developments.
The standards today include the King Pigeon of various colors, the Red Carneau, and the French and Swiss Mondaines, to name just a few. All can make excellent squabbing pigeons, though the White King seems to be preferred by many commercial breeders.
In fact, careful and judicial breeding with productivity in mind is the story of the Utility Pigeon. Notice that the very origin of the word pigeon emphasizes the young bird, or squab, which gives us some true insight into what the originators were thinking all along. Utility pigeons produce squabs, lots and lots of squabs, to our everlasting epicurean delight. They are the steady workhorses of the pigeon world. They work to live, and live to work. It’s what they do, without apology, nor complaint.
They are indeed a most useful and utilitarian bird.
I have noticed that one of the most common superlatives used to describe the taste of a squab is “delectable”. Webster defines the meaning as highly pleasing, delightful, and delicious, and others add luscious, extremely pleasing to the sense of taste, and capable of causing desire. Having eaten a few, I must concur.
I began raising pigeons and squabs after reading “Raising Small Meat Animals” by Victor M. Giammattei, D.V.M., 1976. His chapter named “Raising Delectable Squabs” caught my eye, and I quote from the first paragraph. It reads: “Curiously, few people today are familiar with squabs, even fewer have eaten them, and fewer yet have raised them. There’s no logic in this, for squabs are easy to raise, and their meat is the finest of all poultry meats”.
O.K., you have my attention, sir. I was one of the uninitiated, for at that time I had never eaten a squab either nor seen it offered. He went on. “Squab ranks along with filet mignon, lobster, or suckling kid (young goat). It is found only on the menus of better restaurants and hotels, on steamships, in country clubs, and in some hospitals. It has been a dinner entrée for kings, queens, and other nobility since the time of the ancient greeks…Considering the ease with which they can be raised, the quality of their meat, and the modest cost to the backyard grower, there is no reason why the energetic family should be without squab meat – in the author’s opinion, the choicest of all meats”. Why not indeed, I asked? How had I managed to miss this taste treat? Sign me up.
If this were not enough to convince me about the quality of squab, I have since found other interesting references. Philippa Scott, from her “Gourmet Game”, lists a recipe for “Trid”, or Moroccan Pancakes Stuffed With Pigeon. She writes: “In his “Moorish Recipes”, John, fourth Marquis of Bute, suggests that this dish might well have been introduced into Morocco in the time of Mulai Idris, descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, who fled to Morocco from Mecca, and whose body lies buried at Fez, the land of his exile. It is reputed to be the oldest Arab dish, and it is said that when the Prophet Mohammed was asked what he liked best in the world, he answered that he loved his wife above everything, but after her he loved “Trid”.
The chinese have raised squab for over 2000 years. Today squab farms are big business in china, with several hundred being operated with government approval and encouragement. They are also big medicine. The chinese believe that squab is not only delicious and easily digestible, but that the meat and broth can be used to treat a variety of health ailments. The ancient people used to call pigeons “the sweet blooded animal”, and can be used to cure anemia, weakness, and fatigue. It can be used to prevent high blood pressure, vascular sclerosis, and osteoporosis, just to name a few. Pigeon was the first kind of poultry to be designated as “green food” from the China Green Food Development Center, which means pigeon is the most clean and unsullied meat product to consume.
On the american scene, the use of squab may be a result of the people’s memory and fondness for the tenderness and taste of the passenger pigeon, and we know what happened to that miraculous horde. They ate them. Thomas Jefferson and the history of the United States are forever intertwined. Among many other things, Jefferson was a “foodie”, should there have been a such a term around in those days. He loved his land, his crops, and his meals provided from them. He was famous for his dinner parties and for his dinner guests. Squab was on the menu, raised from his own lofts. “Squab in Compote”, a french recipe, was one of his favorite dishes.
William Randolph Hearst, in his day, was one of the richest and most powerful men in america. Like Jefferson, he was also famous for his dinner parties and the extensive menus. The estate was well-known for its squab loft’s and squab dinners, served to other american royalty and celebrities lucky enough to be included on the guest list. If they were very fortunate, “Hearst Ranch Squab” a roasted, stuffed bird, would be on the table.
So folks, try a squab today. If it’s good enough for a prophet, an american founding father, and one of the world’s richest men, it’s good enough for me. After all, 1.4 billion Chinese, with a “B”, cannot be wrong.
By the way, did I mention that you can raise them in a small backyard? You don’t have to be born of royal blood lines either, but you can dine like you do. They are, a most “delectable” bird.
Trid: Moroccan Pancakes Stuffed With Pigeon
1 1/2 pound pigeon meat, cut into about 20 pieces. Salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, good pinch of saffron, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 stick cinnamon, 1 tablespoon chopped chervil,1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 3 large onions (chopped), 1/2 cup water, 1 cup olive oil, 3 heaping cups flour.
Simmer the meat, salt and pepper, spices and herbs, onions, water, and 1/2 cup olive oil in a heavy casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Make a simple dough with the flour and very little water. Work it thoroughly, then make it into about 20 balls about the size of small hen’s eggs. Flatten each on a lightly oiled board into a very thin disc. Cook each on a dry griddle, not too hot but cooked on each side.
Arrange 1/2 of these cooked pancakes in a oven proof dish, overlapping each other and coming up the sides of the dish. When the meat is tender, remove the cinnamon stick, and arrange the meat on top of the pancakes. Cover with the remaining pancakes. Pour a little of the cooking liquid over the trid, and serve the rest as a sauce.
From Gourmet Game: Recipes and Anecdotes From Around The World by Philippa Scott.
Squab in Compote
6 plump squabs, 2 tablespoons butter, i cup finely chopped onion, 1 finely diced carrot, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 slices diced bacon, 1/4 pound sliced mushrooms, 1/3 cup Sherry, or Madeira.
Truss the squabs. Melt butter in a casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid. Add squabs along with onion, carrot, and salt. Saute until delicately browned on all sides, turning the birds frequently. Next add the bacon, mushrooms, and sherry or Madeira. Cover tightly and simmer in the oven gently for 40 or 45 minutes or until tender when tested with a fork. Do not over cook or they will fall apart. Remove birds, and serve with the sauce on the side.
Hearst Ranch Squab
6 plump squabs, 3 cups bread crumbs, 4 eggs, 2 cups grated Romano cheese, 2 gloves garlic, 2 teaspoons chopped parsley, 3 chopped onions, pinch of marjoram, salt and pepper to taste, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 cup claret.
Drain squabs dry, cut off tips of wings. Mix ingredients, except oil and claret. Stuff birds with mixture and skewer closed. Brush birds with oil and place breast up in an uncovered baking dish. Bake in oven preheated to 400 degrees until brown (35 minutes). Brush with oil, baste with claret. Serve on thin toast with a Borderlino or California red wine.
A willing and observant person can gather some extraordinary insights about the natural world in the most unlikely places. It can happen in the short time that it takes to blink an eye, no matter if that eye belongs to you, or to something else. Nature abounds with beneficial lessons and the teachers of true meaning are everywhere. I just happen to gain some of my clues from the clear-eyed and attentive stares of my backyard pigeon flock. You can learn a lot from an otherwise ordinary and common creature.
I spend a fair amount of time with this captive audience of one hundred in their outdoor aviary. I am their provider, and their lifeline from the outside lands. I supply them with their daily ration of grains and clean water, regardless of the weather or the many other duties or time constraints I may have. I fill their pickpots with grit and minerals. I break ice from their bowls in the winter, and suffer the same stinging snows and biting winds of the day. I clean their flypen and pigeon-house, and keep a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of distress or disease. I study them closely, and through it all, they watch me too.
I am a constant in their lives, and a spoke in their wheel of life. I have come to know of them and their world just a little bit, and they of me. It could be said that they would rather prefer that I was not involved at all, but I am a necessary intrusion they must tolerate, at least for a brief time.
Yet, they wait for me each morning and afternoon, the anticipation building as I drive up to the entrance doors. They mill about excitedly as I approach, ready to perform just for me. I touch the door handle, and they begin their wild jig, dancing like ecstatic puppets on hidden strings. They hop about and swirl their wings like crazed whirligigs, or slap their wingtips smartly as they launch from their perch for a short flight across the pen.
They chant their pigeon talk and coo even louder as I step in through the inner doors, to become completely surrounded by frantic birds, eager to fill their crops before the other’s. They push and shoulder for each speck of grain as if their life depended on it. Perhaps they bicker and fight to establish or maintain some imperceptible pigeon pecking order, or maybe just to remind themselves that life can be a struggle. You would think that they would know by now that their will be enough food for all comers, but it is a wild ritual that they simply must abide for reasons known only to the pigeon.
We have repeated this madcap scene a few thousand times and more, the pigeons and I. It has become routine, with little deviation from the usual suspects. That is until yesterday, when our normal interaction abruptly and inexplicably changed.
It was immediately obvious when I pulled up in my truck. The absence of sound or flashing wings struck me first, and what pigeon heads I could see sat on top of outstretched necks, alert, with searching eyes. They crouched in the classic manner of all prey, with feet tucked under their bodies, coiled and ready to spring out and away from impending danger.
The birds stood frozen and paid me little mind as I entered and searched the ground for an animal intruder. I investigated the pigeon houses and the nest boxes and found nothing. I checked every nook and cranny of their limited world and came up empty. I paused to scratch my head, and ponder this puzzling circumstance.
Hand on chin, I stared at the closest pigeon and wondered, determined to discover just why he would not fly. And then he cocked his head, and I saw his eye focus on something high as he grounded himself more tightly to his perch. At that moment I spied a wide, dark shadow moving across the dirt floor, and smiled. I knew exactly what belonged in that kind of shadow, as did my fine feathered friends. All I had to do was look up, to see just exactly what it was that had struck such all-consuming fear in their hearts.
I had no doubt that the shadow maker was an eater of birds, but there were several possibilities in this category. A red-tailed hawk maybe, or a gleaming eagle from the nearby river. In this case the black shadow belonged to an animal of equal color, with a distinctively naked neck. It was not what I expected to see.
The Turkey Vulture, or Buzzard as it is sometimes called, is quite common to the American West and many parts of North America. A six-foot wingspan casts a long shadow across the land, and he covers a lot of it as he travels. That great red and bald head is immediately recognizable from afar, and known by all. His sentinel like posture and hovering demeanor create and perpetuate his iconic image. It is a form often associated with death, and it is a meaning not entirely lost on my domesticated, but anxious, pigeon flock.
The Vulture is classified as a bird of prey, after all, even though he finds most of his meals by smell after they are already dead. I suppose that it is a distinction utterly lost on the brain of a pigeon.
I am currently researching the history of the Giant Runt Pigeon and it’s breeders in The United States. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who raises Runts, or from anyone who has any knowledge of any of their descendents and family members who may have bred and raised them. From what I can gather, they were brought into this country sometime in the 1700’s. Any information or leads you can provide would be greatly appreciated, including any reference included in old books or periodicals that you may be aware of.
In addition, I am also researching the origins of the King Pigeon in the United States. And, last but not least, I am interested in the history of the squab farming industry in New Jersey.
Please send any information to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The modern city pigeon is a descendant of the rock pigeon that in the Old World dwelled among the cliffs and crevices above the caves in which early man built his first fires. He has been with us since our emergence from the ice ages and has adapted as readily as ourselves to the artificial canyons of man’s first walled towns. He has known the Grecian palaces and the metropolises of Byzantium. His cold flat feet, adapted to high and precarious walking, have sauntered in the temples of vanished gods as readily as in Boston’s old North Station”.