Why don’t we eat swans? I thought I’d jump right in with that question since it’s been on my mind lately. The holidays have become a time for turkey although in Britain at least the goose used to be traditional, and in fact one year for Christmas my mother cooked a goose, which was different from the time my father’s goose was cooked because he forgot their anniversary, but you know what they say: what’s good for the gander is good for making a silk purse out of a sheep’s clothing if you have your cake too, but that’s another story. The main thing I remember about the goose my mother cooked is when it was served it was literally swimming in its own fat so it went from being waterfowl to being fatterfowl, which like the most insulting thing that can happen to a goose aside from being turned into foie gras.
The other thing I remember about the goose is it tasted pretty much like chicken, which got me thinking about the birds we eat. Some are off-limits for obvious reasons. Vultures, condors, and ravens are carrion eaters which is why we carry on whenever we see a group of them hanging around, although some of us have been known to eat crow—if, for instance, we forget a spouse’s anniversary. Hawks and falcons have traditionally been used for hunting so they’ve been useful in getting food rather than being it. Most small birds aren’t eaten because, well, they’re small, although the French eat ortolans, and somewhere there’s a recipe for two dozen blackbirds baked in a pie and, based on what I’ve heard, they’re served still alive. The dodo didn’t go extinct because it was stupid. It was wiped out because sailors who stopped off at the isle of Mauritius ate so many of them and their eggs.
We also eat ducks, and even eat chickens stuffed inside of ducks stuffed inside of turkeys, a pretty tasty combination although I’m a little wary of eating anything that starts with the word “turd”.
So what is it that makes swans special? Yes, they look pretty, but so do Canada geese and, well, as far as I know no one eats those either. Anyway it is probably their looks that saved them. For a long time they were favored by royalty and therefore protected—or at least it was only royalty who could eat them, although at least one Victorian cookbook has a recipe for roasted swans, although they reportedly have a fishy flavor and most people prefer their fish to taste like fish and their fowl to taste like chicken.
Then there’s the mythology. There was Zeus who seduced Leda in the form of a swan, eventually leading to the Trojan War, which makes it sound like Leda would have been better off grilling the swan than sleeping with it. And then there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling which is kind of like a swan itself: beautiful from a distance but it gets worse the closer you get. It’s a nice idea that for the “duckling” things get better but he doesn’t really do anything except get older. If life were that easy we could all just spend those awkward teenage years in isolation which, now that I think about it, doesn’t sound so bad.
There’s also E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan, which I think I got for Christmas the same year my mother cooked the goose. It was his last novel—sort of a swan song, although he’d live another fifteen years after it was published, and follows a trumpeter swan named Louis who’s born mute so his father steals him an actual trumpet which, like his namesake the great Satchmo, he learns to play. And he goes to school, works at a summer camp where he saves a kid from drowning, composes his own music, does a pretty good cover of “Old Man River”, and tips a waiter who brings him watercress sandwiches.
Now there’s a swan I’d hesitate to eat even though he has good taste.