We generally have completely different names for animals once they transform from being a living creature to being food, at least in this culture, in this language. Different words for decidedly different states of being: Sheep becomes mutton, cow becomes beef, pig becomes pork, deer becomes venison, pigeon becomes squab. I was not thinking about this the other morning while I was hurriedly getting ready to leave for an appointment. Not at all. But as I rushed to brush my teeth something caught my eye outside the window that made me do a double-take. Upon turning my head back around I noticed I was not looking at one of the usual white+grey (or grey+black), smooth-feathered, small and plump pigeons that like to congregate out there (they who have taken to calling my fire escape and window ledges their very own meeting hall, their version of an Elks Lodge or a 4H clubhouse. They who sit and gossip, coo, snooze, bicker and chat amongst themselves, sometimes inviting a little chickadee to join them). No. Instead, when I looked through the two-inch crack of open window I found myself peering at white and brown speckled feathers that were of a much larger scale. I put my face right up to the window and let out a silent gasp. A hawk.
Right there, outside my window, standing in a sea of small, white, downy feathers and dining on what I could only assume was one of those white+grey members of the Elks Lodge – otherwise known as squab. A lot of things went through my head, but one of the first was to find a camera – lickety split. I did, and I snapped a few fairly poor-quality shots (among other things, I was shooting through a window screen).
A few of the other many things that went through my head were amazement and awe. It was awesome in the true meaning of an over-used and worn out word (Websters definition of awesome: 1: expressive of awe). While it’s true that Red-tailed hawks are quite common, especially in urban settings (including the celebrity bird Pale Male, who famously lives on 5th Avenue along the edge of Central Park and has been the subject of a feature film along with his Missus, named Lola), it doesn’t diminish the grandeur and spectacle of seeing one up close and personal. It made me wonder about nature.
Living in New York City it is so easy to forget about nature, or forget about our place in the world. Forget that we are an island city surrounded by water, forget that there are many plants and animals that are either indigenous to this land, and/or used to be grown here. The very spot where a skyscraper now stands or where thousands of lights twinkle or gum-covered asphalt melts under the summer heat used to be home to an apple orchard growing Newtown Pippins (a variety of apple originally from NYC – Elmhurst, Queens, to be exact), or a potato field or an oyster bed. I live in a neighborhood that ranks last (last!) of all NYC neighborhoods in terms of its amount of open, public green space. That fact contributes to my thinking quite often about the nature of nature. The notion of nature within a large urban setting often seems contradictory, but is it? Isn’t a city itself, a human-made creation, a part of nature? Central Park, after all, was constructed on land that had been occupied by buildings and people (1,600 mostly poor residents were kicked off their land by eminent domain, in order for the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed expansion project to begin construction in 1858). Central Park may have been artificially created, but after nearly 150 years in existence has it become genuinely natural?
The next morning after seeing the hawk, while settling onto my mat preparing for Joe’s yoga class to begin, I overheard a conversation about a hawk. It seems someone who lives next door to me has spotted the hawk up on his building’s roof deck in recent days. While to a large degree us city dwellers may collectively feign disinterest in our natural world, it seems deep down we continue to be enthralled by nature, which seems only natural.
Here is approximately 4 minutes of hand held video I took of the hawk looking out my bathroom window:
and here is a shorter clip that ends with the completion of the meal and the hawk’s departure:
This event also got me thinking about squab, something my grandmother Erna very much enjoyed. It is a dish that today seems so quaintly bygone – both old-fashioned and Old World. I looked it up in my grandfather’s 1966 edition of Larousse Gastronomique (the first English edition), a French encyclopedia of food, wine and cookery first published in 1938. When I went to squab I found this message: See PIGEON. Ha. But while this English version of a French book listed the category under “pigeon”, it also clearly states that in French the word pigeon is never used on menus – instead it is called pigeonneau, which translates as squab. There are over 20 recipes for squab listed, (I am unsure if the latest English edition of Larousse Gastronomique, from 2001, contains this many squab recipes). These range from quite simple to supremely elaborate. Under the former, there is Roast Squab (Pigeonneau Rôti) , which is trussed, covered in strips of fat and cooked either on a spit or in the oven; while under the latter is the Pigeonneau a la Maitre-Jacques, which requires de-boning the squab, stuffing it with various force-meats, rolling it into ballotines which are then each wrapped in a thin escalope of veal and cooked three more times with various vegetables, bacon, mushrooms, truffles, burnt brandy and finally cooked in a cocotte whose lid has been sealed with a paste of flour and water. Phew. Certainly not a raptor’s meal. I can’t imagine any bird-of-prey having that kind of time to devote to such elaborate cookery. Or the desire.