Reports about seasonal food from the farmers market are common today: for example, KCRW’s Good Food has a weekly farmers market report, the San Francisco Chronicle covers seasonal produce in the Sunday Food and Home section, there are apps about seasonal produce for your phone, and guides printed on paper. I have been following these reports for a long time, and I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like the market report that I found in an 1886 edition of Good Housekeeping. The beginning of the report, titled “Seasonable Table Supplies (Gathered from New York Markets…)”, could be mistaken for a report from last week, starting with a summary of the best items in the local markets (“Grapes of many varieties made a luxuriant show”). But when I got to the “poultry and game” section, it veered into foods that aren’t sold in any markets that I know of: wild ducks, shorebirds, and other game birds.
Here are excerpts from the October 16, 1886 market report in Good Housekeeping:
SEASONABLE TABLE SUPPLIES
(Gathered from New York Markets expressly for Good Housekeeping)
BY Mrs. F.A. Benson
The October aspect of the large markets is admirable. Stands are laden with delicacies and trimmed with wild flowers. The marble bins of fish dealers are set out temptingly, each compartment holding some choice kind of sea food. In a bin with six compartments, each one divided by a slab of marble, are, for instance prauns [sic], smelts, scallops, frogs’ legs, soft clams, and fresh mackerel. … A paleness is creeping over fruit booths with the disappearance of the quantity of rosy rare-ripe peaches, in the place of which are White Heaths for preserving purposes. Grapes of many varieties made a luxuriant show, and there is a late crop of Staten Island strawberries which sell for $1.25 a quart [ed. note: more than $30 in 2017 dollars!].
POULTRY AND GAME
Spring turkeys, yellow with fat and with wing and tail feathers left on, cost 25 cents a pound if from Rhode Island, and 18 a pound if from Long Island… Curlew snipe bring 30 cents each, English snipe 25 cents, and Jersey snipe 30 cents each. Plover are 25 cents, and grass plover are 30 cents each. Corn plover cost $1.50 a dozen, small yellow legs $1.50 a dozen, and large yellow legs 30 cents each. Doewitch are 15 cents. Robin snipe 12 cents, and Bay plover 25 cents each. Small snipe are 50 cents a dozen. Small birds are $1 a dozen. Rail birds are $1.50 a dozen. Corn snipe cost $1 a dozen. English pheasants are $3.50 a brace [= two]. Grouse and partridge fillets are 30 cents each. Guinea fowls are $1.25 a pair. Canvas back ducks cost $3.50 a brace. Red head ducks are $1.75, mallards are $1.25, and black ducks $1. Teal green wing, gray, and wood ducks, broad bills, black heads, widgeons and dippers are 75 cents a brace.
Refrigeration and long-term freezing weren’t common at the time, so these birds were highly seasonal at the markets. Most American ducks and shorebirds breed in the north (the Great Plains, northern lands, or arctic) during the summer, and winter in warmer areas of the mid-Atlantic and farther south, so their peak season was probably the autumn and early winter.
The Market Hunters Had Game
Through the early 1900s, there was a class of hunters called “market hunters” who would kill wild birds and bring them to markets and restaurants. Their #1 goal was profit, and it’s unlikely that they thought much about maintaining sustainable populations (not many people had much environmental consciousness in those days). A presentation about migratory gamebird regulation on the University of Tennessee Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries website has a short history of market hunters, as well as photos of their hunting equipment (like “punt guns — massive, boat-mounted shotguns that could fire a half-pound of lead shot at a time, [so] hunters could kill dozens of birds with a single blast.”
In a 1902 edition of the Saturday Evening Post former two-term president Grover Cleveland makes clear his feelings about market hunters:
There are those whose only claim to a place among duck hunters is based upon the fact that they shoot ducks for the market. No duck is safe from their pursuit in any place either by day or night. Not a particle of sportsmanlike spirit enters into this pursuit and the idea never enters their minds that a duck has any rights that a hunter is bound to respect. The killing they do amounts to bald assassination to murder for the sake of money. All fair minded men must agree that duck hunters of this sort should be segregated from all others and placed in a section by themselves. They are the market shooters.
Game On Restaurant Menus and in Cookbooks
Game was common on New York City restaurant menus. Without much effort I found many examples in the vast Buttolph Collection of Menus at the New York Public Library. Four are shown below, with the main game sections highlighted. A variety of wild ducks and shorebirds appear as roasts, cold dishes, and other preparations. These are from between 1899 and 1907, around the publication time of the market report above and President Cleveland’s rant against market hunters. I have found menus from the 1920s that have game, but I suspect that these were oddities. The What’s on the Menu tool shows that the peak menu incidence for various game was around 1900 (Ruddy Duck, Teal Duck) and after 1910 for others (Golden Plover, Mallard Duck).
Game recipes could be found in cookbooks of the era too. For example, Charles Ranhofer’s monumental Epicurean (full text at Hathi Trust) has numerous recipes for snipe and other game birds: roasted, in pies, in terrines, and various mysterious dishes (like palmettes and mousselines). The example below is a dish that has been out of fashion for a long time — perhaps the most recent equivalent would be the fancy molded Jello salads of the 1950s to the 1970s (those rarely had this much meat, of course).
A piece at the Atlantic Monthly about the history of cookbooks notes that in earlier times, however, game was an aristocratic food, and thus wasn’t in cookbooks for average people:
Meanwhile, a clear line also had to be drawn between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. This was particularly evident in chapters about game, which was an ingredient that many royals and aristocrats hunted. Game receives very different treatments in two different books by the prolific 18th-century French author Menon. In 1755’s Les Soupers de la Cour (“Court Dinners”) he has a long chapter with detailed recipes for red deer, roe deer, and wild boar. In his La cuisinière bourgeoise (“The bourgeois cook”), published nine years earlier, however, these animals are only mentioned in a general introduction and no recipes are given.
It has been a long time since cookbooks for general audiences have included recipes for wild game because game isn’t easily available to the vast majority of cooks. For those who hunt or have other access to wild game, there are many specialized cookbooks that will tell you how to cook deer, boar or waterfowl. For example, Hank Shaw’s Duck, Duck, Goose: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Waterfowl, Both Farmed and Wild.
What Ended the Game?
Unlimited hunting and development in wetlands led to sharp declines in waterfowl and shorebird populations (humans can kill birds a lot faster than they can reproduce, and we are also skilled at destroying their habitats), so a number of laws and regulations were promulgated to sharply limit the hunting of birds. Three major examples were the Lacey Act of 1900 banning interstate trade of illegally taken game, the Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 giving the federal government control over hunting of migratory birds, and Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protecting migratory birds.
“Seasonable Table Supplies,” by F. A. Benson, Good Housekeeping, October 16, 1886, V 3, number 12 , p. 300. Full text via Google Books.
“The Serene Duck Hunter,” by Grover Cleveland, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 174, Number 43, April 26, 1902. Full text via Google Books.
- Canvasback ducks from John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1840-1844), from the New York Public Library Digital Collection, licensed under CC0 1.0.
- Curlew sandpiper by James E. De Kay and Golden plover from Audubon’s Birds of America from the New York Public Library Digital Collection. Public domain.
- Menus from Hotel Knickerbocker (1907), The Plaza Hotel (1899), St. Regis Hotel (1906), and Delmonico’s (1899) are from the Buttolph Collection of Menus at the New York Public Library. Public domain.
- Recipe for Isabella Mousseline from The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer (full text at Hathi Trust)
Updated March 3, 2019 with information about cookbook history.