Posts Tagged ‘J.J. Audubon’

The Nature of the Picayune Creole Cookbook

November 21, 2012

In honor of Thanksgiving, the American holiday dedicated to gluttony, I offer this food-oriented essay.

Editors and journalists from the New Orleans Picayune newspaper published the Picayune Creole Cookbook in 1901 from recipes compiled in the late 19th century.  If the reader is interested in this cookbook, be sure to purchase the facsimile of the original published by Dover Publications and not the newer version published by Random House in 1987.  The ignorant clods who updated the original left out most of the historical recipes that made the original so unique and valuable for food historians.   The text of the original version is available for free online from the following link

The great variety of organisms consumed by Creoles during the 19th century makes the Picayune Creole Cookbook  an interesting one for naturalists as well as food historians.  Today, turtles are a regional specialty but have gone out of culinary style for most of the United States.  For 19th century Americans, turtle meat was an abundant and common source of protein.  The Picayune Creole Cookbook gives recipes for green sea turtles and diamondback terrapins.

Diamondback terrapin.  Reportedly a delicacy.

Diamondback terrapins live in saltmarshes all along the Atlantic coast from New England to Mexico.  Like so many other animals, they were formerly abundant but today are rare due to human consumption and coastal development.  I’ve never seen one.  Turtles were cooked in soups and stews, giving me the impression the meat is tough.  Turtle meat is not sold in stores around Augusta, Georgia and I’ve never eaten turtle.

The sheepshead was the most popular and “versatile” fish used in New Orleans around the turn of the century.  This species uses its human-like teeth to crush the shellfish that it feeds upon.  This diet is probably what makes them taste so good.

The teeth on a sheepshead look very human-like.  They eat clams and the teeth crush the shells.

Look at that beautiful…fish!

The Picayune Creole cookbook also has 5 recipes for eel, 4 for stingray, and 6 for frog.  Oddly enough, the only recipe for a freshwater fish species is for roe from green trout which is the name they used then for largemouth bass.  Most of the fish recipes are for marine species including pompano, bluefish, flounder, red snapper, red drum, and croaker.

One of the most interesting dishes in the book is Pigeon a la cardinale, known also as pigeon and crawfish–a combination I bet not a single person in the world will eat for supper tonight.  The dish calls for baking 3 pigeons between layers of bacon in a pan filled with beef broth and onions.  The crawfish are boiled separately.  After the pigeons and crawfish are done cooking, a little of the crawfish boil water is added to the beef broth and the pigeons are garnished with the crawfish.  The authors of the cookbook differentiate between domestic and wild pigeons.  The availability of passenger pigeons at the market was still a recent memory when they were compiling the recipes for this book.

The Picayune Creole Cookbook states that the pigeon and crawfish dish is “Creole to the letter.”  Now this dish is almost unheard of.  The above photo is the closest match I could find on google images.  It’s a roasted pigeon served with crawfish tails, softshelled crab, and vegetables, but not with bacon and a gravy made from pigeon, beef, and crawfish broth.  Passenger pigeons and crawfish were at one time both abundant, making pigeons and crawfish a practical dish.  Now, it’s not at all economical to make.

The canvasback duck (Nyoca vallosneria) was praised as the best-eating waterfowl because it ate wild celery (Vallosneria spiralis).  Some ducks eat a lot of fish, but canvasbacks are mostly vegetarian.  This diet gives their a flesh a savory quality.  They were simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice and broiled quickly.

Male and female canvasback ducks–reportedly the best tasting of all ducks.  Duck is one of my favorite foods.

The bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorous) known as the reedbird in the Picayune Creole Cookbook, apparently was common table fair when in season. The second part of its scientific name means rice-devourer.  It still is a pest for rice farmers.  Creoles shot these members of the blackbird family to protect their rice fields.  It only takes 5 minutes to broil small birds such as bobolinks (robins and larks were also prepared this way).  I’ve never eaten a bird smaller than a quail.  It takes at least 2 quail to equal the amount of meat from about 1/4th of a chicken.  It probably takes about 4 bobolinks to equal 1/4th of a chicken.

The bobolink, also known as the rice bird.  It’s a pest to rice farmers and table fair for Creoles.

It took me a while to figure out what a pababotte was.  I’ve determined that the pababotte discussed in the Picayune Creole Cookbook is probably the upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).  The upland sandpiper is a denizen of the prairie.  Fossil specimens of this species were discovered at Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Georgia and Bell Cave in Alabama.  Both localities are in a region where upland sandpipers are absent today aside from an occasional vagrant.  This is evidence that small pockets of prairie existed within the mostly forested region of the upper south during the late Pleistocene.  Upland sandpipers were once an abundant bird but overhunting and agriculture have greatly reduced their numbers.  J.J. Audubon witnessed 48,000 upland sandpipers killed in a single day by a group of hunters in 1810.  Creoles serve them stuffed and braised, roasted, or broiled.

Upland sandpipers were more widespread during the Ice Age.

Until 1861 an old French woman produced Fois Gras in New Orleans.  She raised geese in small cages.  She kept their feet nailed to the cage floor and force fed them to enlarge their livers.  I’m sure the enlarged livers are rich and delicious, but the practice seems cruel and wasteful–the rest of the meat is flabby and unfit for eating.  Raising geese for Fois Gras is illegal in the U.S. today.

There are many recipes in the Picayune Creole Cookbook that don’t require extinct or rare animals to make.  One of the best I’ve tried is a soup made out of beef ribs, corn, and tomatoes.  I could live on lentil salad–a simple recipe of lentils tossed in a vinegarette.  The gumbo recipes from the book use less roux than most modern gumbos and instead are thickened with powdered sassafras leaves or okra.  A gumbo made out of a leftover turkey carcass is an excellent example of frugality but I prefere a more roux-heavy version.  There are 7 recipes for different types of sausages, and I’ve made several, though in the shape of hamburger patties rather than links stuffed in casings.  For the home cook I think this book is still useful and will never go out of date.


Squirrel Migrations

August 24, 2012

When virgin forests covered much of eastern North America, vast armies of gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis) periodically migrated over the landscape.  They swam across major rivers and swarmed over farmer’s cornfields, eating every last ear of corn.  The very first tax enacted in Ohio is a tribute to their former pestilence–all homesteaders were required to bring 3 squirrel scalps to the tax collector.  The following passage from the book, America as seen by its First Explorers, by John Bakeless illustrates this stunning phenomenom.

In the autumn hundreds of squirrels were sometimes found swimming from one shore to another.  Merriwether Lewis, on his way down the Ohio to pick up his companion, William Clark, in preparation for the Lewis and Clark expedition, found so many of them in the water that he used his trained Newfoundland to plunge in, catch them, and bring them aboard the boat, where they proved ‘when fryed a pleasant food.’

Boatmen near Marietta found the river ‘completely overrun with immense quantities of black and gray squirrels.’  They climbed fearlessly up the oars to rest on the boats, which sometimes had five or six of them aboard at once.  Since about a third of the little animals drowned before they reached the other bank, travel was sometimes unpleasant because of ‘thousands of dead squirrels putrifying on its surface and its shores.’

On land, a hunting party could easily bring in several hundred squirrels at once, and kills of one or two thousand are sometimes reported.  Kentucky riflemen scorned random shooting at these tiny, lively targets.  There was a local Kentucky joke to the effect that a squirrel was inedible unless shot squarely through the left eye.  Some hunters shot squirrels only through the eye and that only when they saw them in the highest treetops.  Really distinguished woodsmen like Daniel Boone refused to shoot the little animals at all.  They preferred  ‘barking off the squirrel,’ that is, putting a bullet into a branch exactly at their feet.  Audubon, for whom Boone gave a demonstration, wrote ‘The whip-like report resounded through the woods, and along the hills in repeated echoes.  Judge of my surprise, when I perceived that the ball had hit the piece of bark immediately beneath the squirrel, and shivered it into splinters, the concussion produced by which had killed the animal and sent it whirling through the air.'”

J.J. Audubon’s painting of what he called the migratory squirrel–Scirius migratorious.  He incorrectly believed it was a unique species, but it was actually the same species as the common gray squirrel.

Massive squirrel migrations were so common during the early 19th century that J.J. Audubon mistakenly believed migrating squirrels were a distinct species.  We now know mass migration is an occasional habit of the gray squirrel.  Mass squirrel migrations stopped occurring following the felling of the old growth timber by the late 19th century, but they still happen on a much smaller scale.  The last recorded squirrel migration occurred in 1998 and took place in Arkansas and some adjacent states.  There was also a squirrel migration in 1968 on the eastern seaboard from Maine to North Carolina.  The squirrels migrate in all different directions, unless they are crossing a major body of water when they all head in the same direction.  The migrations last 4 weeks and always occur in September–a time when food is normally abundant.

Scientists don’t know for sure what caused these massive squirrel migrations, but Van Flyger, a retired scientist, put forth a strong logical hypothesis in 1969.  Recent squirrel migrations occurred in poor mast years that immediately followed good mast years.  During the good mast years when acorns are abundant, gray squirrels produce 2 litters.  Normally, in September, gray squirrels disperse to new ranges because early fall is when food is most abundant and young squirrels have an easy time establishing a new territory.  This is known as the “autumn reshuffle.”  The movement is influenced by the amount of mast the squirrels spend time burying.  They stay in the same territory when they experience the spent time there storing food.  But if there is an excess of young and a shortage of food, the overpopulation of squirrels will just keep dispersing across the landscape.  It’s the normal autumn reshuffle on steroids.  The squirrels keep moving because there is not enough mast for them to spend a long enough time in the same vicinity to establish a territory.  They must have a kind of biological clock that tells them to stop dispersing because they’ve buried enough acorns in 1 area to keep them alive for the rest of the year.

There is an evolutionary advantage to this dispersing habit.  Populations of gray squirrels from different geographical regions come into contact and breed, resulting in healthy genetic recombinations.  Moreover, beneficial mutations are retained.  This dispersal strategy explains why gray squirrels are of a uniform color (with some exceptions) whereas fox squirrels (Scirius niger) are not. (See  Fox squirrels do not disperse across the landscape, explaining why this species of squirrel only occurs locally, and why it sports so many different color variations.  I think it also explains why fox squirrels are absent from so many regions in the south.  After forests across the south were clear cut, dispersing gray squirrels were able to recolonize young forests while fox squirrels were only able to occupy small areas of remnant woods, perhaps where lumber operation left some trees standing.

Gray squirrel migrations undoubtedly occurred during the Pleistocene.  The nut burying habit of both gray and fox squirrels necessarily evolved to protect their food supply from foraging megafauna and passenger pigons, both of which could sweep a forest clean of mast.  Red squirrels (Tamiascuirius hudsonicus) also store food but rather than burying the mast, they collect it in large caches within hollow snags.  Squirrels still had to share buried acorns with bears and peccaries, animals that like squirrels, can detect the scent of underground food.  But they did successfully hide food from bison, deer, and pigeons.

On a side note I did see another example of interesting gray squirrel behavior yesterday.  A gray squirrel advancing into my yard while traveling on a tree branch kept waving its tail and pausing.  It was waving its tail to attract the attention of potential predators, then looking around to detect their presence.  The tail-waving is a smart strategy that gives them time to take evasive action, if there is a predator present.  Lately, a pair of red shouldered hawks have been hanging around my yard, and my cat killed a juvenile squirrel last week, so it was understandably cautious.

Arctic Birds in Ice Age Georgia

December 16, 2011

J.J. Audubon reported 2 species of birds with arctic affinities as rare stragglers in Georgia during the 19th century.  He wrote that snowy owls (Bubo scandacius) occurred as far south as Georgia, and he even witnessed Atlantic puffins (Mormon arcticus) in Savannah Harbor during the harsh winter of 1831/1832.  The northern hemisphere experienced a minor cooling period known as the Little Ice Age between 1300 AD-1850 AD, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some species of arctic birds spread south when particularly hard winters occurred.  Though the Little Ice Age had a major impact on human agriculture, it was a minor blip compared to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene when glaciers encompassed all of what today is Canada.  Arctic birds that were rare stragglers during harsh winters of the Little Ice Age were probably common during full blown Ice Age winters.

A map of the extent of the glaciers that covered North America during the Ice Age.  This depicts the Last Glacial Maximum.  During much of the Ice Age, the glaciers weren’t this large, but were still much more expanded than they are  today.  The range of many species of birds, especially ducks and geese which today summer in places that were miles under glaciers then, must have been pushed farther south.  This is a neat map that also shows loess formation.

Snowy owl about to catch a small rodent.

Snowy owls prefer open tundra habitats and nest on the ground.  During the Ice Age, tundra habitat was displaced much farther south than it is today.  Winter appearances of snowy owls in the southeast were probably common.  During the cold spell of the early 19th century they expanded their winter range south along the coastline because the open landscape of coastal dunes resembled their preferred habitat of tundra.  Grasslands expanded during Ice Age stadials, so snowy owls would’ve headed south to inland areas as well as the coast then. 

I’m not aware of any snowy owl sightings in Georgia since 1900.  There was a sighting in Springhill, Tennessee in 2009, but that was the first in that state since 1989.  They still invade Wisconsin and Ohio on a consistent basis.  The following youtube video shows a snowy owl in Toledo, Ohio.

It may not be harsh winters that cause snowy owls to extend their range south.  Some scientists think their population increases following lemming population explosions, and this explains why they may be more commonly seen during some winters.  Lemmings and mice are their primary food, though these large owls will prey on rabbits, squirrels, ptarmigans, grouse, and other owls.  J.J. Audubon observed them fishing.  He writes that the owls lay flat next to streams and snatch fish with their talons.  Others report them taking fish by diving from the wing like ospreys.  They are also a danger to cats and small house dogs.  A snowy owl killed a small house dog on a Wisconsin suburbanites back porch recently.

Atlantic puffins.

I’m unaware of any puffin sightings in Georgia since 1900.  But during the Ice Age, enormous colonies of these birds nested on rocky coastlines much farther south than they do today.  The ocean receded then, exposing many isolated islands where they could nest unmolested by predators.  Puffins probably often occurred off Georgia’s coast during Pleistocene winters.  This species nests in burrows and feeds upon small fish which it captures by swimming underwater.  The burrows of a colony are linked together underground like a maze. 

No fossil evidence of these 2 species has been found in the south, but I’m certain they would have made a birdwatcher’s checklist during Ice Age winters.