Sláinte: Four & Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

Illustration by Cathy Bartholomew

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
February / March 2003

Just recently I moved into a little house with a large front lawn and a very large back yard. All needed some tender loving care. The house, a darling early fifties bungalow constructed during LA’s post-WWII boomtown days, has good bones, and a little creative cosmetic work has enhanced its dormant beauty. The outdoor areas, on the other hand, require major help.

All the other houses on the block have verdant green swaths between their front porches and the street, but my little castle’s landscape had been neglected for years. I told friends who wanted to come visit, “Just look for the house with the dead lawn.” Such a situation was anathema to a gal whose bloodline includes some forty shades of green.

So, I crawled around on my hands and knees, pulling weeds and crabgrass. Then, I waited impatiently for rain, and when the skies finally opened (a somewhat rare event here in LA’s famously dry San Fernando Valley), I hied myself to one of those humongous garden centers and bought 40 bags of fertilizer and 30 pounds of grass seed. Next, I had the whole thing roto-tilled, stirred in the fertilizer (feeling like I was baking up two gigantic mud pies), sprinkled on the seed, watered daily, and waited for the brilliant green baby grass shoots to appear. They did. So too did the crows.

Turns out, my neighborhood is crow heaven. I have run from the house shooing as they land to peck at my precious seedlings, whereupon they flit to my neighbor’s immense avocado tree and sit cawing at my feeble attempts to dissuade them from their feasting. As soon as I turn my back, they alight once again on my newborn lawn. We play that game a few times and finally they take to the air as one, tossing caw-curses at me I am sure. I have stood in the yard counting as they fly overhead, and I swear there are at least 200 individuals in the flock.

Nowhere but Ireland have I seen so many big black birds gathered in one place at one time. Once in County Meath, I was staying in a rather posh manor house that had a huge tree some hundred yards down the greensward. As we gathered for tea one afternoon, suddenly a flock of large black birds descended and perched in all the branches making a racket I shall never forget. “The rooks have arrived,” said my host. “They come in every afternoon at about this time, spend the night and fly off to forage in the morning.”

Until then, the only `rook’ I had ever come across was that castle-looking game piece on a chessboard. Since that day I have developed a keen awareness of big black birds. Rooks look remarkably like ravens, and ravens look very much like crows. Perhaps they’re all related.

My host in Meath told me a very interesting rook fact: They make fair eating. “A bit gamey,” he said, “and a bit tough, but roasted rook has kept more than one hungry Irish family alive in hard times.” If the thought of eating anything but chicken and turkey is hard to swallow, take a trip down memory lane to your youth. Remember `four and twenty black birds baked in a pie’? It’s no mere nursery rhyme.

That the birds in this beloved kiddies’ jingle began to sing once the pie was opened may seem a contrived bit of fiction, but it’s not. In a noble’s home during the Middle Ages, the main meal was the main event. This was especially true when royalty came to call, which happened too frequently for many a landowner’s peace of mind and pocketbook. We think of kings and queens staying home and bidding the world to come to them, but such was not the case at all. Rulers spent months on the road, arriving at the gates of their loyal subjects’ manors with large retinues — coachmen, footmen, mounted guard and foot soldiers, stablehands, personal attendants, seamstresses, blacksmiths, and lords and ladies in waiting who had their own attendants as well.

With little more amusement than perhaps a morning spent hunting (men only, of course), dining was the chief entertainment. There were lute players and singers, meat carvers as deft as jugglers, pomp, ceremony, and a non-stop parade of surprises delivered from the kitchen. Being able to produce elaborate edible fantasies — like live birds caged inside a faux pie — was a mark of a household’s sophistication and wealth. Think of it on a par with a Playboy model popping out of a cake at a modern prenuptial bachelor party.

Blackbirds were not the only feathered creatures baked into Irish game pies. From illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells we know that a great variety of birds (the lark, thrush, nightingale, eagle, goose, snipe, grouse, quail, partridge, plover, woodcock, pheasant, duck, swan, and even peacock) ended up on the table.

Wild birds played a key role in the Irish diet for thousands of years. Catching them was the hard part. A hunter had to be skilled with a sling and later a bow and arrow, or be able to craft ingenious traps and snares to bring home enough birds to make a significant contribution to any meal. Winged creatures are, after all, mostly feather, bone, tendon, beak and talon.

That changed in the 12th and 13th centuries when the Normans introduced the Irish to purposeful pigeon breeding in great numbers in dovecotes. Pigeons became a key dietary item almost immediately. The largest birds were simply impaled on a spit and roasted over an open fire. Sometimes the smaller birds were coated with a thick layer of mud (feathers and all), buried in the ashes of a fire, and cooked until the mud turned hard as a clay pot. When the baked mud was broken and removed, the skin and feathers came away as well, leaving behind a succulent bird that had been basted in its own juices.

Pigeons were so plentiful that ingenious cooks found many ways to prepare them from pot-roasting to stewing, and many were baked in pies (another Norman addition to Irish cuisine). Steak and pigeon pie was a very popular dish as it made use of another dietary staple — beef. Pigeons are considered best eaten between March and October. In March while the birds are still young, plump, and tender, they can be stuffed and roasted much like chickens or turkeys. As the birds age, the flesh becomes tougher and they are more suited to stews and casserole dishes, especially if some Guinness is stirred into the mix.

Pigeons and all game birds were much easier to add to the larder once rifles appeared on the scene. Weekend `shooting parties’ were all the rage at country houses during the 19th century, and the sport is still very much a part of Irish country life today. Several manor houses will arrange an early spring or late autumn shooting party for game enthusiasts. Mornings are spent tromping through the forested estates; afternoons are for relaxing in front of a turf fire; evenings see the fruits of the hunters’ labor come to the table roasted, braised, stewed, and done up as traditional pies.

As I sit here typing this article, the crows are circling my lawn once again. I hesitate to think what it will be like when I put in a kitchen garden come spring. Perhaps I should dress a scarecrow in a chef’s apron and toque, surmounted by a banner that reads “Crows Beware! Irish occupant loves blackbird pie.” Sláinte!  ♦

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