Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Those French people will eat just about anything..."

I was recently reminded of a luncheon that my mother served years ago with my maternal and paternal grandmothers in attendance. A little background... My dad's mother is of Cajun descent, and my mother's mother is German/Irish. Food is a true way of life in Southern Louisiana. Each household has its own recipes and closely guarded family secrets of how to make the best Gumbo or Pecan Pie. I think my overwhelming obsession of food these days has a lot to do with this fact of life in the Deep South. To say that there was a rivalry for the affections of the family when it came to cooking between the two grandmothers is a bit of an understatement, which makes the ensuing events even more funny.

Back to the luncheon: I was trying to explain to a newby crawfish-eater at the table that French cuisine embraced many more unusual proteins than his midwestern upbringing had exposed him to. Crawfish was certainly exotic
to his palate at the time. The lively conversation was abruptly halted when Irish/German grandmother says to the group, "Those French people will eat just about anything, won't they?" Dead and akward silence fell over the luncheon table from this obvious if not unintended insult. Eventually conversation resumed and no one was worse for the wear. We are family after all, but a memory was made to say the least and the gears in my head began turning.

I was recently reminded of this event when i started reading Bill Buford's book, "Heat." It's an autobiographical account of the author's time spent in the Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo. In the opening he mentions that French practice of eating Ortolans, which we, English-speakers, refer to as Buntings or Sparrows. Having come across a new potential gastronomic delight, I immediately went to the internet.

My search uncovered something surprising, and maybe a little disturbing. Apparently, the sale of Ortolans has been outlawed in France because the practice of preparing and eating them has
become regarded as rather savage and cruel. The tiny birds are captured and shoved into a black box where they are fattened on a diet of millet and other grains. They are then drowned in Armagnac, decapitated (optional), and roasted until just warm before serving. All but the head is eaten - including guts and bones. In a grisly scene, the head of the eater is covered with a large napkin to increase the aroma of the bird and to hide from the eyes of God their shame in partaking in such dastardly delight.

Escoffier offers the following advice on Ortolans:

Wrap each in a vine-leaf; set them on a pan, moistened with salted water, and cook them in a very hot oven for four or five minutes. The small amount of water lying on the bottom of the untensil produces an evaporation which prevents the Ortolans' far from melting; consequently there is no need of slices of bacon, butter, or gravy. Each Ortolan may be served in a half-lemon, shaped like a basket. The Orotolan is sufficient in itself, and it ought only to be eaten roasted. The products sometimes served as accompaniments to it, such as truffles and foie gras, are injurious, if anything, to its quality, for they modify the delicacy of its flavor, and this modification is more particularly noticeable the more highly flavored the additional products may be. With is accompaniments it becomes a sumptuous dish, for the simple reason that it is expensive; but it does not follow that the true connoisseur will like it; it must be plainly roasted to suit him.
While the sale of Ortolans is illegal today in France, one can certainly eat and catch them without any fear of legal repercussions. Famously, Francois Mitterrand feasted on Ortolans before his death from prostate cancer causing a huge controversy shortly after the law banning the sale of Ortolans had passed in France. Today, one can still eat them in Gascony, but not pay for them. You can watch a video clip of folks eating them by clicking here.

This grossly extreme case of carnivorous behavior does bring up an interesting dilemma for the modern gastronome and ominivore. I think it puts the onus on us to decide where we belong in the food chain. Is eating a force-fed
sparrow whole any worse than boiling a lobster alive, eating doggie stirfry, or roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving? Although I'm not quite ready to spend the rest of my days eating roots and shoots, I might be a little reluctant to try Ortolan Rôti on my next trip to France. But, who knows, I could be missing out on the most delicious delicacy still out there - it might be the next crawfish creole. Besides, those French people do eat just about anything... and thank goodness for that!

I have included three family recipes that were mentioned in this blog. My grandmother's pecan pie, my mother's crawfish creole, and my own recipe for gumbo. Please enjoy!

Grandma Daniel's Pecan Pie Recipe

3 eggs
1/3 cup melted butter

1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup dark karo syrup
1 cup pecans

Combine all ingredients and pour into prepared pastry. Bake 45 minutes in 375 degree oven or until filling is completely set.

Dot's Crawfish Creole

1/2 cup vegetable oil or butter
1 cup chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
4 cloves minced garlic
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
3 cups water
1 pound boiled and peeled crawfish tails
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
1 cup green onion tops, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

  1. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sauté vegetables until translucent. Add garlic and cook until garlic is tender, but not brown.
  2. Add tomato sauce and paste and 2 cups of water. Simmer about 40 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more water if too thick for desired consistency.
  3. Stir in crawfish tails and sugar and seasonings. (go easy on the salt, because the crawfish tails were boiled in a salty mixture of seasonings and they retain this flavor)
  4. Serve over hot cooked rice. Garnish with green onion tops and parsley.
Gregoire's Christmas Gumbo

6 chicken thighs, bone and skin on
1 pound sweet Italian pork sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 pound spicy Italian pork sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped

2 medium green bell peppers, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
8 cloves of garlic, minced
6 tablespoons AP flour
vegetable oil
1 bouquet garni (thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf)
Tabasco Sauce
Cayenne Pepper
Salt and Pepper
1 cup white wine or beer

  1. Preheat on the stove a large heavy Dutch oven on medium high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot.
  2. Salt the chicken skin liberally. Render the fat in the chicken and sausage by browning in the Dutch oven. To avoid over-crowding the pot, you may have to do this in smaller batches. Remove the meat and set aside for later.
  3. Reduce heat to medium low. Slowly stir in the flour until a thick slurry forms with a wooden spoon or whisk. Add vegetable oil, if necessary, to thin out the roux if it becomes too paste-like. Continually stir over medium low heat until the color of the roux is a rich dark mahogany and smells of toasted nuts.
  4. Add chopped vegetables, salt liberally, and sweat in a covered pot until tender. Add more oil if necessary.
  5. Add wine/beer, bouquet garni, and reintroduce proteins. Add enough water to cover the ingredients and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook in a covered pot for half an hour or until the chicken is completely cooked and can be easily removed from the bone.
  6. Remove chicken thighs from the liquid and allow them to cool. Remove the skin and bones and reserve cooked chicken for service. Chop the meat into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Let the Gumbo simmer in an open pot on the back burner until ready for service. Periodically skim off any fat that rises to the top. Add more water if it becomes too thick.
  8. Just before serving, remove the bouquet garni and reintroduce the chopped chicken to warm through in the Gumbo. Correct seasoning with salt, black pepper, Tabasco, and Cayenne Pepper.
  9. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve hot over steamed white rice.


  1. where did you ever find that pic of Grandma? She always wears an apron like that! I will send you a real pic and you can use it if you want to.

  2. it kind of looks like her, doesn't it?