It felt like an extremely weird Masonic ceremony," the guest recalls. "We all wore black cloths over our heads. This is partly to capture the aroma of the dish as it wafts up into the hood. But the original reason was so that God wouldn’t see you devouring this helpless little bird."
The ortolan, a rare, sparrow-size songbird, is one of the world’s most celebrated delicacies. Among French gourmands, eating ortolan is a centuries-old rite of passage; its subtle flavor is said to embody "the soul of France." Tradition calls for the captured bird to be fattened on a diet of figs and oats before being drowned alive in Armagnac. It is then roasted and consumed whole in a single, delirious mouthful. Since the 1970’s, however, the ortolan has been highly endangered; in France, hunting the bird is punishable by a $10,000 fine. Allegedly, this did not stop a dying François Mitterrand, in 1996, from eating ortolan for his last meal—thereby burnishing his legend as either a fearless gourmand or a cynical, heartless bird murderer.
If you chose "bird murderer," you might want to stop reading now. Last year, a chef in New York hosted a top-secret dinner party for 20 of America’s most famous chefs and served ortolan as the main event. Food writer Jonathan Reynolds was among the guests.
"It was a game dinner—woodcock and the like—but we were all there for the ortolan. They’d been smuggled over from France in empty coffee cans," Reynolds says. The ancient ortolan ritual was followed to the letter, down to those mysterious black shrouds. "The bird arrives in a cocotte, and you put the entire thing in your mouth and chew— bones and organs and all," Reynolds continues. "And it’s absolutely delicious—a sweet, subtle, evanescent flavor. The room goes silent for ten minutes, except for these gentle crunching sounds. You try to keep it in your mouth as long as possible, and then suddenly it’s gone, and you think, Oh, I want much more of that. But, of course, you can’t have it."
The fact that the chef was able to obtain a couple of dozen extremely rare and protected songbirds from France and smuggle them past U.S. Customs in coffee cans is perhaps less remarkable than his ease in finding two dozen intrepid souls willing—no, ecstatically clamoring—to dine on them. "It was one of the great moments of my life," Reynolds says. "It certainly didn’t feel wrong."
The allure of the forbidden is age-old, of course, but it has intensified of late—partly out of necessity. In an era marked by fear, loathing, and countless taboos, how is one to eat with a clear conscience?At every link in the food chain, a dizzying number of things are being declared "wrong" by somebody.
In April 2006, Chicago’s city council voted, 49 to 1, to outlaw the sale of foie gras; New Jersey (home of D’Artagnan, a leading foie gras distributor) is considering a statewide ban. And by 2012, the production and sale of foie gras will be illegal throughout California.
In March 2005, in a "proactive" move—i.e., there’d been no reports of anyone getting sick—Los Angeles County health officials abruptly clamped down on the sale of wild mushrooms. Apparently, they were surprised to learn that the mushrooms were actually wild and that foragers were mostly unpoliced. Stricter controls are being devised as we speak.
Last June, Whole Foods stopped selling live lobsters at its stores across America, citing concern for the lobsters’ "health and well-being" as they journey through the supply chain to supermarket tanks. The company is searching for new distribution methods that guarantee lobsters "quality of life" and is also reviewing the living conditions of mussels and oysters.
Sigh. What’s a Sancerre-sipping, goose-and-crustacean–torturing gastronome to do?It’s hard enough not being allowed to get Brie de Meaux from France, or mouthwatering jamon ibérico from Spain, or luscious mangosteens from Thailand. Now there’s even a UN-mandated trade freeze on wild beluga caviar.
And it isn’t just about fancy foods. Do you know how hard it is to find a proper, rare-cooked hamburger in this country?(Many local health codes require ground beef to be cooked to above 160 degrees.) Ever count how many towns across America still prohibit the sale of beer?And did you know that in 28 states, a farmer can be fined for selling his neighbors fresh, unpasteurized milk?
We Americans have always wrapped a great deal of guilt and worry into what we eat. Perhaps this derives from an inherited Puritan worldview that condemns gluttony as sin; maybe it’s because we’re all so damn fat. Whatever the cause, our collective anxieties have led us to an increasingly defensive posture vis-à-vis food and drink. Every week, it seems, another menu item—from foie gras to Chilean sea bass, trans fats to organic spinach—is ostracized as unhealthy, environmentally destructive, morally shameful, or downright lethal. Some concerns are legitimate, some exaggerated, some just paranoiac hokum. So which to believe, and which to ignore?
Amid the confusion and contention, a small but determined underground has emerged. It’s hardly an organized movement—at least, not yet. But a growing number of dauntless food- lovers are ignoring the more draconian restrictions, defying U.S. Customs and the FDA, and seeking out a taste of the forbidden.