Sin and Songbirds
Think about the most controversial but delicious food you know about. Really pause a moment, and think about it. You're probably thinking about a bird, one that gets deliberately fattened by force feeding before being slaughtered, prized by famous chefs and indulgent diners the world over. You're probably thinking it's a dish that's been illegal to serve in many places around the world. You're probably thinking the dish is French.
You'd be right about all of these things...but I'm not talking about foie gras.
A Mysterious Meal
It's a beautiful painting, noteworthy for its photographic realism and its demonstrated mastery of portraiture. I had practiced as an artist for almost ten years starting when I was eight, moving from pastels on parchment, to charcoal on canvas, and eventually to portraiture with oils. I was captured. As you scan the painting, the first thing you'll probably notice is the piercing stares of the diners in the forefront of the scene, as if you've been caught taking a photograph with your phone without their permission. But it's not just people stalking you; it's also the little cat, perched near the left edge of the frame. In the background, the work's commissioner, a merchant and friend of Bloch's, is depicted at the back table speaking with two friends, with Bloch himself turned away from the viewer. This is how I had studied the painting. I was so interested in Bloch's technique and composition that I had almost overlooked one of the most obvious oddities of the painting. When I finally noticed it, my one thought rang in my mind like a loud singular gong in an otherwise silent monastery:
Why in the world does that woman have a napkin on her head?
It turns out that the woman depicted in this painting is probably eating a songbird called the ortolan bunting. It's a small bird, and it's also become the most recent object of my grand obsession.
The Practice of Gluttony
Ortolan is a delicacy, most famously served and adorned by the French. It's noted for its unctuous, complex, hazelnut-like flavor and eating the bird is considered a rite of passage for French gourmets. Some people consider the ortolan the soul of the country. Proust wrote about eating ortolans. The French gastronomic giant Alain Ducasse, who currently holds an astonishing twenty-one Michelin stars, served ortolans during his 1995 visit to the legendary Le Cirque in New York. Earlier that year, the former French President François Mitterrand had his infamous last meal on New Year's Eve consisting of foie gras, thirty Marennes oysters, capon, and not one but two ortolans before dying of prostate cancer a few days later.
In 1975, Craig Claiborne, the famed New York Times food critic, wrote about a contest he had entered sponsored by American Express to a dinner for two at any restaurant in the world, provided the establishment accepted their credit card. Claiborne won the auction and decided to eat a three-part, 31 course meal in France with some of the finest wines in the world and the bill came out to $4,000...the equivalent of over $18,000 today. When Claiborne was trying to choose which restaurant to go to, he went to Chez Denise in Paris and met Mr. Denise himself at a test meal there, and what was he served? Ortolan. Unsurprisingly, Claiborne ate the bird again as part of his return trip to Chez Denise for the real meal.
In more recent times, ortolan still captures the imagination of chefs, learned diners, and the public. Anthony Bourdain described his experience eating ortolan to Stephen Colbert, singing its praises: "It's a hot rush of fat, guts, bones, blood, and meat...and it's really delicious. It's one of the great, most extraordinary dining experiences you can have." The modern television series Hannibal depicts its notoriously gruesome titular character Hannibal Lecter as an exquisitely masterful chef and...cannibal. In a particularly sensual and almost erotic scene, the show features ortolan flambéd:
Ortolan has a long, indulgent, and gluttonous history, but not only for tradition and its taste. Like many storied delicacies such as foie gras, fugu, and san-nakji, the dish has a deeply sinister side. In my opinion, the little bird hovers near the top of my list of morbid gastronomic curiosities.
First of all, catching and selling ortolans is illegal in France, as it is in almost every part of the world where it is found because it is rare and endangered. Thousands of the songbirds were once caught every year as they migrated south from Europe to Africa, and since the ban, a black market has risen where the thumb-sized birds sometimes sell for hundreds of dollars apiece. But eating an endangered species is the least scandalous part of having this dish. The real scandal is in how the baby-fist-sized birds are captured, prepared, and eaten. Ortolans are typically captured alive; they're far too small to be shot with pellets like other eaten game. Instead, they're caught with nets, sometimes entangling other birds that may be endangered as well. Some are lucky to be captured in ground cages, baited with seed. In Cyprus, ortolans are trapped with limesticks, long wooden branches lathered with a white, tar-like glue that are planted in juniper bushes to snare the birds on their tail feathers. After the birds are captured, they are fattened. People discovered that ortolans naturally gorge themselves at night, so they are kept in black boxes with little to no light and plenty of seed to feast on. They are manipulated to eat until they can barely move and balloon to twice their original size. It's said that Roman Emperors used to stab their eyes out and blind them into a perpetual night to make them consume even more. When the bird is sufficiently fattened, the traditional preparation calls for the still-living ortolan to be drowned in Armagnac, a brandy made in Gascony, southwest France. This practice both kills the bird and allows the flesh to marinate in the liquor before being plucked of its feet and defeathered. Once prepped, the little bird is heated and served, usually as one of the final courses. The proper way to eat ortolan is to eat it hot and whole in one mouthful: flesh, bone, beak, and all. One bird, one bite. The crunch of the bones, the savoriness of the guts, and the mashing of the little brain against the shattering skull is all supposed to be part of the experience. It's also supposed to be transcendentally delicious.
This brings me back to Bloch's painting and the woman with the white napkin on her head. When eating ortolan, it's ceremonial custom to cover your face with a napkin so you can hide from the judgment of God when eating such an indulgent and morally depraved dish. Supposedly, it was a Catholic Cardinal who first started the napkin tradition. In old French songs, the ortolan is praised as a symbol of innocence and the love of Christ. Now, the French say it's best to hide under the napkin so your fellow diners don't need to watch you spit out the bird's larger bones that you couldn't crush with your molars.
The Taste of Sin
I have never tried ortolan. I will probably never try ortolan. Not only is it illegal to acquire or have served in any restaurant I could get easy access to, but it is deeply disturbing in its capture and preparation. But this unlikelihood of trying ortolan is more of a practical obstacle rather than a necessarily principled one. I can't deny that the history and scandal of this dish deeply fascinates me and sparks a tremendous curious itch I am eager to scratch. I am an adventurer, a risk-taker, and so far, a relative amoralist with food. I've eaten the still-moving tentacles that have been snipped from an infant octopus before my eyes; I've been eager to try potentially lethal fish flesh that can contain a neurotoxin a hundred times more poisonous than cyanide; and I certainly don't think twice about eating goose liver paté on a slice of toast. The conflict between what is so clearly immoral but at the same time so immensely seductive is at the heart of my obsession with ortolan. I may never get the chance to try it, but if I did I would feel deep ambivalence about taking that chance in a way I haven't with other foods. Knowing what I know about ortolan, this is the one dish that sits so clearly in the gray area that it dangerously stokes the flames of my curiosity like the ashen embers of an ancient but once roaring fire.
But if I do decide to somehow take the chance one day and try ortolan, I will definitely have a napkin over my head. Not shielding me from the judgment of God, but protecting me from the possibility of having Bloch's painting re-created in the modern era. If I am sure about anything with this dish, it's that I would never want a photo of me, napkin half over my head, with my surprised and sin-soaked eyes staring at you from across the dining room.