How to Make Passenger Pigeon Pie like Someone from 1871

a guest post for Nerdy Book Club (published on    )

To get you started, here’s a recipe with footnotes. (Footnotes provided to help 21st c. inhabitant adapt a more suitable 19c mindset.) 

 From Jessup Whitehead, Cooking for Profit: A New American Cookbook (1):

Pigeon (2) or Squab Pie
… Take 18 squabs (3), pick, singe, open down the back, draw, and divide in halves (4); wash and dry them and flatten with the cleaver. (5) Pepper, salt and flour them on both sides. Melt ½ pound of butter in the baking pan the pie is to be made in, lay in the squabs and bake them light brown. Pour into the pan about 2 quarts of broth or water and continue the baking. When done sufficiently thicken the gravy, add walnut catsup or a little Worcestershire sauce (6) and salt and pepper, cover with a short crust (7) and bake twenty minutes longer. When the crust of a meat pie gives out before the meal, bake a thin crust by itself on a baking pan; cut it in squares and use to finish the meal. (8)

(1) Cookbook is from 1893. Yes, it’s twenty-plus years past my date, but Mr. Whitehead wrote about cooking for years and years for newspapers across the country before publishing this book. I tell you, he knew his pigeons!  

(2) It’s conceivable that “pigeon” also meant pigeons like 21st century city pigeons, but  Passenger Pigeons were so common that it was probably not necessary to make any distinctions.  In addition, Passenger Pigeons were regularly packed into barrels and shipped by train into the big cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Baltimore, New York City, etc. Passenger Pigeons were also called “wild pigeons” and sometimes simply called “wild game” because Passenger Pigeon was a cheap replacement for game like prairie hen, duck and grouse.   

(3) “Squab:” Yeah… Ah, that would be baby pigeon. You’re going to hate me for saying it, but squab must have been absolutely delicious. So if you’re from 1871 I’m betting you love the taste of squab. Squabs fattened on hazelnuts, acorns, beechnuts (to name a few flavorful nuts) and they got very fat. They were so fat that it took the squab three days of running – usually on the ground away from predators of all sorts – before they lost their fat and flew away. (I mean, let’s be honest -- do you like good bacon? This was probably better tasting.)  Also, if you’re from 1871 eating meat isn’t going to present an ethical dilemma. Treating animals well would be something you thought about. A person who mistreated his animals wouldn’t be thought of as someone with good character.  

(4) Cleaning, singeing and boning birds? In 1871, you can do this with your eyes shut. You’ve been cleaning birds since you were a child. Squabs are probably a yearly (or bi-yearly) treat, and they are smaller, but smaller is not a problem for an expert like you! “Singeing” means that after you pluck the bird, you’re going to rotate the body above a small flame (like that of an exposed oil lamp flame) to burn off any down or feathers. 

(5) Yeah, we don’t use the cleaver as much these days. Go to it! But don’t enjoy yourself too much – no pulverizing, only flattening.

(6) Sauces? In 1871, you’ve got a ton up your sleeves. Pigeon pie – and now I’m talking about pie made with adult birds (not as tasty as the squabs because there would be less fat) – would have been a common, common food. Passenger Pigeons didn’t take a lot of skill to gather (a stick would do). Therefore, when the birds first appeared in the early spring, you’d have eaten your fill of the meat – probably until you were sick of the taste. When the birds were gone, you probably had filled your cellar with preserved pigeon meat, so you ate pigeon over the winter too. You were happy for all this free food, but I am sure that a good cook did whatever they could to alter the taste and make different dishes with it. “Catsup?” This seems to be anything with a strong flavor and some sort of juice (don’t quote me here). For instance, mushrooms and brandy is called a “catsup.”  Walnuts, a bunch of spices, and vinegar can be called a “catsup” too! Let’s consider it our “secret sauce,” like BBQ sauce is today.

(7) No need to explain this either. You’ve been making crusts for years now. Your hands are on autopilot.  “Short crust?” These are ones with a “medium to high proportion of fat to flour and a low moisture content. They are handled lightly and quickly, with the minimum of rolling, to give a crumbly…texture when baked” (according to Larousse Gastronomique Culinary Encyclopedia). But who needs such a doorstop of cookbook? You know this!  

(8) It’s so nice of Mr. Whitehead to add this tip. He wants to make sure you don’t waste a drop of that squab pie!

Bon appetite!  Or as they say in Wisconsin, “Eat up!”

Amy Timberlake’s newest novel is One Came Home. It’s a western, an adventure, and with a mystery tucked into it too. It’s set during one of the last great Passenger Pigeon nestings, which occurred in 1871 in southwestern Wisconsin. Read more at AmyTimberlake.com