By GinaRae LaCerva, Guest Contributor
Thomas Farrington De Voe was overwhelmed by a peculiar obsession. He wanted to describe every article for sale in the raucous public food markets of mid-nineteenth-century New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. A butcher with a stand at Jefferson Market, and a member of a number of historical societies, De Voe stalked the cramped stalls of the markets often, inquiring of the dealers and perusing the bounty.
The variety and quantity of edible wild fowl was especially impressive. In his 1867 book, The Market Assistant, De Voe catalogued a staggering 119 kinds of game birds for sale. Forty varieties of ducks: golden-eyed, sprig-tailed, hairy-headed and dusky. Robins and Blue Jays tied up in strings. Bobolinks, cedar-birds, plover, curlew, night-hawks, rails, thrasher, and thrush.
To the modern palate, which must contend with just a few kinds of domesticated birds, the quantity and diversity of wild birds available during the nineteenth century sounds fantastical. But for De Voe, it wasn’t just a matter of the stomach. Hidden amongst this array of birds’ feathers was the story of a changing landscape and an entire nation infatuated with chasing distant frontiers.
De Voe was a keen student of history, and he knew he was creating a record of a bounty already in decline. It was just the opposite story when the first European colonists arrived. The wild bird populations had been so immense, the skies seemed demented with wings. “If I should tell you how some have killed a hundred geese in a week, fifty ducks at a shot, forty teals at another,” William Wood wrote in 1634, “it may be counted impossible though nothing more certain.” For British immigrants accustomed to restrictive hunting laws back home—which barred anyone but the nobility from taking game birds and made poaching an offense punishable by death—the abundant fowl in the new world not only helped to fill in the contours of survival, but became a symbol of independence. One simply had to pick up a musket and enter the woods just beyond the homestead to find dinner. There seemed a mob of wildlife so generous, no man could ever have an impact on the prosperity laid before him.
But the untamable appetites of these newcomers had a tremendous impact on bird populations, and De Voe lamented the resulting paucity in his own market. The wild turkey, once found in flocks of a hundred, was now rarely available, and the tame turkeys that could be purchased were far less succulent. The heath hen on Long Island’s Hempstead Plains had once been so cheap and plentiful, it had a reputation of being a poor man’s food, and servants would beg not to eat it more than two or three days a week. But by 1830, they had become a scarce and expensive bird, highly sought after by epicures.
Even the impressive quantities of passenger pigeons De Voe inventoried paled against the seasons of their greatest flights a hundred years before, when nearly seventy-five thousand might be brought to market in a day, and fifty birds were sold for a shilling. The naturalist John Audubon once witnessed a passenger pigeon flight along the Ohio River that crowded out the sun for three days and sounded like the onrush of thunder. When they landed to roost, these convulsions of nature broke as many branches as a tornado. “For a week or more,” he wrote, the locals “fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons, and talked of nothing but pigeons.”
By the time De Voe completed his study in the mid-nineteenth-century, game birds were no longer a mark of homespun self-sufficiency. They had become a market phenomenon. Barrels and bushels of fowl were traded as readily as cash or government bonds, and the rise of gastronomic culture in the urban centers fed this increasingly frenzied speculation. The birds in the prairies were shot in the morning, iced in the afternoon, and sold in New York a day later as a “thing in season.”
Indeed, De Voe was chronicling a very unique moment in U.S. history. The country was divided into sparsely populated hinterlands, dense forests, cultivated fields, and growing cities, creating an extremely varied mix of landscapes not seen at any other time. Concurrently, an expanding railroad and canal system, advances in refrigeration, and new gun technology meant that, for the first time, consumers in metropolitan centers had the chance to purchase products from all over the country. The country poured forth wild-fowl by the millions of pounds.
But the forces that supplied the wild diversity in the market stalls were at the same time the causes of its demise. By the 1880s, the populations of many wild birds were so reduced, their pursuit became unprofitable, and wild birds were almost entirely forgotten as food.
Because of the tremendous destruction of wildlife over the past few centuries, what was once a common practice has become a rare privilege. The passenger pigeon and heath hen are both extinct, and the wild turkeys wander suburban streets looking for the forests of their ancestors. We may never fully comprehend the magnitude of the loss of these birds, but their silenced flights impel us to grasp that the food we eat today is an artifact of this interactive history, and the nature we leave to the future is a map of our own.
GinaRae LaCerva is a writer and researcher in the fields of environmental anthropology, history, and geography. She completed a Master’s Degree in Forestry at Yale. She is currently working on her first book, which examines the ecology, economics, cultural history and psychology of eating “wild food” in the modern world.