Friday, 15 November 2013

The Story of Game

Q. What is the difference between a Northern zoo and a Southern zoo?
A. The Southern zoo has a description of the animal along with a recipe.

As with many jokes, it’s funny because it’s close to the truth. Prior to the nineteenth century, natural histories routinely remarked on the taste of exotic birds and mammals captured in the wild, including those held in the first public zoos. For centuries, royalty enjoyed roast swans, peacocks, and blackbirds for supper. Hence, in “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” the “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” is part of an actual recipe. Indeed, until very recently, no living creature was exempt from the gastronomic gaze, a gaze that evaluated dormice, lions, hyenas, and other unlikely stewpot candidates according to the vagaries of taste -- and then put that assessment to the test by giving the unlucky creature to Chef.

Today, I doubt even the most socially ambitious hostess would eyeball swans on the pond and think to herself, “When my Emma marries Harry, I’m roasting that flock for the Prince!” Of course not. For in correct English, these birds don’t come in flocks but in “whitenesses.” To wit:           
A whiteness of Swans,
                  A gaggle of Geese,
                  A team of Ducks,
                  A trip of Widgeon,
                  A whisp of Snipe.

Nowadays, they’ve all become “flocks,” just as pretty much all the birds eaten by Homo sapiens sapiens have become “chicken.” As goes language, so goes taste: we’re a generation away from double-ungood McBurgers on every plate. Oddly, obscure languages are going extinct almost as quickly as flora and fauna on this planet, and they die out for the same reason: the inability to reproduce in an indifferent world.

Globally speaking, swans, geese, ducks, widgeon, and snipe remain plentiful in numbers, and are legal to hunt in many regions. Depending on the time of year, they are quite edible. Some of them are wild. Some are semi-domesticated. Most gastronomes have never tasted any of them, because they’re more familiar with widgets than widgeons. In some countries, game meat is cherished as a delicacy. In others, it’s mocked as a symptom of poverty. The difference has nothing to do with the tastiness of the species, and everything to do with social history, culinary traditions, and the law. Endlessly fascinating and often surprising, the history of human hunting for food articulates a particular relationship between man and nature that defies simple categorization. Though true “wildness” in today’s world is perhaps impossible to achieve, certain birds and animals live outside narratives of human caretaking. How those creatures become human food is the story of game meat. 

Text by Paula Young Lee, author of Game: A Global History now available to purchase from our website.

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