Forgotten Foods #1: The House Sparrow

The very cute Passer domesticus

I do like to see a social group of tweeting house sparrows getting into fights, taking a nice dust bath, or whatever; they are so watchable. They are one of my favourite birds. Once extremely common in Britain, their numbers have dropped sharply in last few years and nobody really seems to know why. In the past they were plentiful and were commonly served up at the dinner table. In fact many songbirds were counted as legal game and were very popular indeed. Here’s a delicious-sounding recipe from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for sparrow dumplings:

Mix half a pint of good milk with three eggs, a little salt, and as much flour as will make a thick batter. Put a lump of butter rolled in pepper and salt in every sparrow, mix them in the batter and tie them in a cloth, boil them one hour and a half. pour melted butter over them and serve it up.

Over the pond in New York, the plague of house sparrows became very bad indeed: Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow said WL Dawson in 1903. Something had to be done! The people of the ever-trendy The New York Times encouraged folk to help rid the place of the pests, and not to let good protein go to waste, they tried to make them appear as an attractive and sought-after meat:

English Sparrows are being properly appreciated. Hundreds of them are now caught by enterprising people for sale to certain restaurants where reed birds are in demand. A German woman on Third Avenue has three traps set every day, and she catches probably seventy five a week. They are cooked and served to her boarders the same as reed birds and are declared quite as great a delicacy. This German woman bastes them, leaving the little wooden skewer in the bird when served. They are cooked with a bit of bacon. She tempts them with oats, and after the catch they are fed a while with boiled oaten meal. She sprinkles oaten meal in the back yard also, and thereby fattens the free birds. … So soon as it becomes known that the Sparrow is a table bird their number will rapidly grow less.
People don’t like to experiment, but when it is discovered that the Sparrow has been declared good by those upon whom they have been tried, no boarding house meal will be deemed in good form unless a dish of fat Sparrows adorns it. Sparrow pie is a delicacy fit to set before a king.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the date of the article – if anyone knows, please let me know.

I am not that well-travelled compared to many, but here in America, and in the African countries I have visited, the house sparrow is just everywhere. To do your part to rid these continents of the ubiquitious little bastards, may I suggest getting your hands on the Dodson Sparrow Trap:

 

7 Comments

Filed under Eighteenth Century, food, Game, history, Meat, Recipes

7 responses to “Forgotten Foods #1: The House Sparrow

  1. Kathryn Marsh

    i can’t say I fancy picking tiny bones out of Mrs Raffald’s boiled pudding – I have crunched the bones in spit roasted ones before now and recommend this method of cooking if you decide to have a go yourself – grandad used to baste them with bacon fat (he basted most things with bacon fat). Alas I rarely see enough to roast these days though I did see a half way decent flock at the gate of a local farm where the combine turns earlier this week. But I’m sure the reason for their decline in the UK and ireland is the absence of spilled grain and of well managed hedgerows for them to nest in. When I was a child in the early fifties there were still lots of horse drawn delivery vehicles and urban horses and they were always followed by a sparrow flock checking through the dung. Nowadays there is little horse dung and there are few middens around houses to pick over. The house sparrow was a dependent of unhygienic urban man. The modern world is all together too clean and tidy for it

  2. buttery77

    Thanks Kathryn. I’m not sure we’re even allowed to eat them these days are we? I’m sure here in the USA, it would be welcomed!

  3. buttery77

    An obvious question kathryn, is what do they taste like!? There’s not many people who can say they have chowed down on House Sparrow these days!

  4. Pingback: What is a pudding? | British Food: A History

  5. Hi – I was just sitting in the garden looking at the House Sparrows, & I remembered something my father said. He said in WW2, they would have sparrow pie. He was a bit of a joker at times, but I thought I’d check it up online – lo & behold, maybe the old man wasn’t joking after all, bye

  6. Pingback: The Holy Family Ate those Pesky House Sparrows | Defenders of the Catholic Faith | Hosted by Stephen K. Ray

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