Monday, February 20, 2012

Peacock poultry

The Fox Hollow community in Boynton Beach, Florida, has a problem. They are overrun by an estimated 400 peafowl (2nd image, slideshow here). "They bang on my French doors, throw themselves at my windows and wake me up every morning, jumping on my roof at 6 o'clock. And during mating season, they scream and holler," says resident Dorothy Laswell. After exhausting efforts to have them relocated with the help of public agencies or private organizations like zoos, they are on the verge of culling the flock by half. The homeowners association is considering paying a trapper $6,000 to kill 200 of the birds, although Laswell responds emphatically, "I want every one of them out of here." Not all of the residents are in agreement. Cheryl Bickley confides, "They're loud and they make a mess, but they're beautiful. I'm one of those people in the neighborhood who feeds them, even though I know I shouldn't. It's horrible that they would even think of killing them. I have a 3-year-old daughter, and my fear is that I'll be driving down the block and she'll see somebody strangling a peacock." The fate of the peacocks and peahens will be decided by majority opinion at a meeting tonight. Board member Betty Lou Brancato will vote against exterminating the beautiful birds, even though they did eat her begonias: "They were here before us. It's a sad thing. The birds are like family." While some people moved in because of the peacocks and give them names, others are tired of their poop, their noise, and their reluctance to give the right of way to vehicular traffic. Journalist Frank Cerabino writes, "I've been trying to imagine what a pile of 200 dead peacocks would look like. Not a pleasant image..."

...unless you were a chef in 16th or 17th c. England or Europe, when peacocks were prepared for the table in a number of creative ways.* The author of a multi-volume work published in Naples in 1558 offered his advice for presenting a spectacular bird:
"Kill a Peacock, either by thrusting a Quill into his brain from above, or else cut his throat, as you do for young Kids, that the blood may come forth. Then cut his skin gently from his throat unto his tail, and being cut, pull it off with his feathers from his whole body to his head. Cut off that with the skin, and legs, and keep it. Roast the Peacock on a spit. His body being stuffed with spices and sweet Herbs, sticking first on his breast Cloves, and wrapping his neck in a white Linen cloth. Wet it always with water, that it may never dry. When the Peacock is roasted, and taken from the spit, put him into his own skin again, and that he may seem to stand upon his feet, you shall thrust small Iron wires, made on purpose, through his legs, and set fast on a board, that they may not be discerned, and through his body to his head and tail. Some put Camphire in his mouth, and when he is set upon the table, they cast in fire."
The peacock, which could in this way appear to breathe fire when served, was a typical dish at the feasts of King Henry VIII, alongside swan, whale meat, and grilled beaver tails: "This delicacy was served dressed in its own iridescent blue feathers (which were plucked, then replaced after the bird had been cooked), with its beak gilded in gold leaf." For others, peacock was a Christmas dish, or presented on top of a bakemete (a pie) containing the bird's meat (1st image, depicted in a 1627 still life by Dutch painter Peter Claesz, and 2nd image, a contemporary recreation). "All present at the meal would admire the beautiful bird when it was brought ceremoniously to the table of the host. The admiration was probably somewhat less when it came to eating the peacock: its meat is very dry. No wonder the peacock disappeared from the tables when the turkey...made its entrance in Europe during the 16th c.!" writes Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers, who tests the recipes of the past and suggests that substituting chicken to make the dish more succulent. For anyone who does want to take on the challenge, the question of how to cook a peacock has been addressed within living memory, with Step #1 being - and here's where Boynton Beach comes in - acquire a peacock. In 1951, Gourmet wrote, "Don't know where you got your peacock, but every time we see one of those fine-feathered fellows strutting around the local zoo, we can't help thinking how handsome he would look on a silver serving platter!" The magazine offered a recipe for roasting (at 20min per lb), which they repeated 10 years later with the addition of a savory stuffing. Just a thought.

*Peacock was also eaten by the ancient Romans.


  1. I think the obvious solution here is for the people in Boynton Beach to hold a cooking contest to see who can make the best peacock dish. That way everyone would get to enjoy their splendor while reducing the nuisance of the birds at least a little bit.

  2. To which one can add:

    From the Greek physician Anthimus (6th c) writing to the Frankish king Theodoric:

    "Of peacocks, if there are any, the best are the oldest, killed five to six days before, and well caprientur [marinate/? age?] those which have such meat, and put them in wine or boil each in its own juices, so that for those who like it put a moderate amount of honey and pepper in the juices, after they have been cooked. Younger or tender peacocks should be killed a day or two before."

    And from the 14th c. French cook Taillevent:

    "To Make Pheasant And Peacocks In Full Display

    To make pheasant and peacocks in full display, lard and put on the spit. When they are half cooked, lard with clove, and for two servings. an ounce of powder of assorted spices, seed, clove, long pepper, and nutmeg and two ounces of true cinnamon beaten to powder. Then take one pint of rose water and one pint of vinegar and put under the roast. Stir all the spices together, and strain through a cloth. Put a quarter pound of sugar in the sauce. Then take half a pound of true cinnamon, and a handful of onion. Preserve in sugar and other household spices. When the roast is taken off the spit, put in dishes, lard with the preserved true cinnamon. Put some broth under it without touching the preserves. This sauce is good on all roasts."


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