The Pigeon and the Plate

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In the U.S., pigeons were also kept on estates and farms, but some entrepreneurial pigeon-breeders tried to launch large-scale pigeon farms beginning in the early 1900s. They raised large breeds with names like Silver King, Carneau, and Swiss Mondaine. Manuals were published that boasted of the profits to be found in pigeons, but many of these ventures went bust before long. In the end, as agriculture industrialized, squab couldn’t compete with chicken, which offers much more meat—indeed, a bucket of fried squab probably wouldn’t look very satisfying at a drive-through window. But that’s not the only reason squab hasn’t taken off.

Squabs require a lot of parenting. Pigeons are altricial, meaning that chicks live in the nest for up to a month before ever venturing out on their own. Chickens, on the other hand, are precocial birds—when chicks hatch they’re ready to walk around and find their own food—which makes keeping chickens far more efficient. Also, chickens can lay more than 200 eggs a year, while pigeons can raise only a dozen or so squabs.

Today, a few pigeon farms in the U.S. still sell squab commercially to restaurants and specialty grocery stores. Tony Barwick heads the largest pigeon farm in the country, the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in South Carolina, which produces over 400,000 squabs every year. Barwick says squab was “immensely popular” in the 1800s and early 1900s because American society was largely agrarian and pigeons were easy to keep on farms. But as people moved into cities they left behind their squab-eating ways. Now the squab business is on the rise again, with Asian markets, particularly restaurants in Chinatowns, composing the largest slice of Palmetto’s business. Demand for squab also comes from what Barwick calls the “white-tablecloth” market of upscale restaurants, and natural-foods suppliers like Whole Foods (Barwick says his farm has always emphasized all-natural, antibiotic-free birds).

Squab is still eaten around the world, where it figures in several traditional dishes. In Europe, pigeon pie was once a popular meal, but in modern dishes squab is usually served roasted on the bone. In Chinese cooking, the birds are often glazed and deep fried, and served complete with the head. In the Moroccan dish b’stilla (sometimes bastilla or pastilla), pigeon meat is cooked into pastry crust topped with sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. And pigeon is still popular in Egypt, where it is often served grilled or roasted and stuffed.

You may not salivate when you see pigeons in a park battling over a stale inch of pizza crust, but given the bird’s enduring reputation--as well as the continuing globalization of the American palate--there’s little doubt these dishes will continue to appear on restaurant menus, no matter how unpopular our street pigeons become.

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