PIGEONS IN THE PARK
|Squab from D'Artagnan.|
|Supreme de pigeonneau--half a breast and wing of a squab.|
|Left--Maranhao red rice.|
Long before Tom Lehrer sang about poisoning pigeons in the park, Ernest Hemingway stealthily decimated the pigeon population of the Luxemburg Gardens, in Paris. The time was the mid-Twenties when poverty was romantic provided that you were an American writer married to a woman with a trust fund. That was when the budding novelist frequented the Brasserie Lipp, La Closerie des Lilas, Cafe' Flore, Les Deux Magots during the day and sipped liqueur with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the evening.Somewhere in between, he wrote and tended his first child whom he would occasionally take to the Medici Fountain at the Luxemburg for an airing. There when no one was looking, he would strangle foolhardy pigeons and stash their carcasses in the baby's pram for future consumption. It is possible--and anything is possible with American literary myths--that the stowaway pigeons inspired him to call his Paris memoirs A MOVEABLE FEAST.
My own pigeon-based repasts had another setting. They happened in a huge double house my parents shared with close relatives in the outskirts of a small town Ceara', Brazil. I must have been six or seven at the time and this house remains in my memory as a place of magical beauty. It was set next to woods where poisonous snakes and free range chickens lived in an entente cordiale and where I hid under a fragrant green dome of velame, Croton campestris, to read my father's copy of LES MISERABLES, of which I understood next to nothing.
All paradises have serpents. Mine had, besides real reptiles, an intractable, somewhat mad second cousin who terrified me with his angry outbursts. He was, however, a passionate hunter who often brought home fat bags of quail and rolinha caldo de feijao, Columbina talparcoti, which he roasted on an open fire.Woe to me if I glanced at him while he drowned his roasted birds in malagueta pepper sauce.
"'Are you spying on me," he'd roar.That was a grave accusation.
That was a grave accusation. Espiar, to spy had a double meaning in my part of Brazil. It could be understood as "ogling someone's food" which hinted at being hungry, therefore poor, something Ibero-Brazilians hated to make known.Only beggars had the right to flaunt their poverty. Everyone else should have the decorum of the bankrupt Spanish grandee so aptlydescribed in the the saying, por cima tanta farofa, por baixo mulambo so' --so much fancy stuff on top and nothing but rags underneath, But for people of means be as undignified as to display their hunger in public was shameful and demeaning. Such behavior in a child my age meant that was mal educada, badly educated, badly brought up, ill-mannered.) An ill-mannered child reflected badly on her parents and to tarnish the parental image was serious stuff. Life was complicated back then. As for the other meaning of espiar, it was to spy. Again, serious stuff for people of the Crypto-Jewish** * persuasion. One's choice of food was an indicator of one's religious practices and throughout centuries, many a Crypto-Jew perished in the flames of the Iberian Inquisition for choosing olive oil instead pork fat or for refusing to mix milk products and meat at the same meal.
Whether my second cousin's paranoid fear of spies had to do with hidden Judaism or not, I do not know. All I know is that his anger often went as suddenly as it came. In his calm moments, he was generous enough to share his food--roasted quail, boiled umari, Poraqueiba cericea nut, wild honey in the comb, and once in a great while, squab from his dovecote.
Maybe one has to be a bit mad to kill four-week-old pigeons. They look so utterly helpless, so unfinished, so vulnerable in their huge-beaked, bright-eyed, sparsely feathered vulnerability. But sympathy for members of the animal kingdom was rare when I was little. As long as they fit into Jewish dietary laws, birds were for eating. In the Middle east, pigeons had been on the menu since Biblical times. I imagine that while they lived in Spain where, allegedly, they were taken by the Romans after the fall of the Second Temple, my ancestors ate b'stilla, the Hispano-Moorish pigeon, almond, cinnamon, and sugar pie the recipe for which exiles from Iberia took to with them to Morocco following the 1492 Expulsion.
My folks did not make b'stilla. After half a millennium in Brazil, their recipe for warka, the translucent, phyllo-like dough that envelops the filling of b'stilla, must have disappeared along with their Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish. Dona Julia, my parents' cook did not have the skill needed to replicate the food of Hispano-Jewish banquets. Even so, what she did with my cousin's squab, was brilliant. She cooked them in an ample quantity of broth to which she added rice--Maranhao red rice, if I can trust my memory of that long-ago meal--to make a casserole.
I do not recall watching the transmutation of squab and rice into a dish similar to the sopa seca of Spanish-speaking countries, but I have a vivid memory of how it looked and smelled when it came to the table--fist-sized, golden birds lay on a bed of red rice spangled with golden coins of fat. A pool of rich broth redolent of annato seeds, garlic, shallots, black pepper, cilantro and chives encircled the rice. It was the food of dreams, infused with the evanescing memory of Judean banquets, Roman feasts, and celebrations in the Moorish-Iberia of my maternal ancestors.
Should I decide to emulate Hemingway, there is a little park near my house where I can push an empty pram. There should be no health concerns. According to James LeRay Morgan, author of CULINARY CREATION, " squab meat is regarded as safer than some other poultry products as it harbors fewer pathogens (than poultry) and may be served between medium and well-done." Trouble is, the local gendarmerie police patrols the park more assiduously than the guards of the Luxemburg Gardens did in Hemingway's time. It would be wiser to order squab from suppliers in California. D'Artagnan, for example, offers the choice of squab with head and feet still attached and the decapitated variety. I would go for the headless and footless bird. As a person twenty-first-century sensitivities, I no longer care to be reminded the appearance of live animals prior to their arrival at my plate. I do not have access to a source of freshly harvested arroz do Maranhao, but I have a stash of red Himalayan rice that should be a good substitute.