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A Pheasant Food Memory

By Jordan Wright
March 23, 2009

After many hours, I managed to pluck every feather by hand and at last stared down at the lowly bird whose size and majesty had diminished substantially.

After many hours, I managed to pluck every feather by hand and at last stared down at the lowly bird whose size and majesty had diminished substantially.

My earliest foray into the preparation of game came quite unexpectedly a number of years ago. I was wintering on Long Island’s South Shore in an old farmhouse beside the sea. It was unseasonably temperate along the Montauk Peninsula with the seasonal thermal inversion created by the Atlantic’s proximity to the estuarine waters of the Napeague Bay.

I spent that hauntingly beautiful winter alone, save for four cats, and a golden retriever that appeared on my doorstep each morning and stayed with me during the daylight hours faithfully returning to his owner at night. He trotted beside me on my daily beach walks and on crisp afternoons spent at a nearby stable where he would wait in the barn while I exercised the horses with the stables’ owners.

After an hour or so mucking out stalls, our steamy breath mingling with the hot vapors coming off of the lathered horseflesh, our little group would retreat to the warmth of the main house for peanut butter and bacon sandwiches on toast with glasses of sherry.

A food memory’s path to the prefrontal lobe is sudden and unpredictable. Last week’s lecture by Israeli-born artist Ori Gersht, at The Hirshhorn Museum was the catalyst for my pentimento.

The lecture began with paintings by Goya and Manet depicting assassinations and proceeded through photographs of mayhem and destruction. One showed an image of a barren landscape littered with cannonballs, called, ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death” taken by Crimean War photographer, Roger Fento. In another, a good-looking killer awaits execution. Gersht’s own video series depicts botanical violence.

Darrell poses with a nice wild pheasant

Darrell poses with a nice wild pheasant

A pomegranate, its stem tied to a string, sways back and forth across the frame from the aftershock of a bullet piercing its leathery flesh, in a replica of the Juan Sanchez-Cotan 1602 painting entitled, “Fruit Still Life.” He references the great Dutch painters’ still life paintings of birds, fruits and insects by blowing up tulips and butterflies and cinematically archiving the explosions in slow motion…hardly the stuff of fond memories..

But thankfully the mind has a way of filtering out the excessive and unrelated and borrowing distinct elements that can conjoin with the remnants of one’s memory. It can strip away layers and reveal a pristine image. Life from Death.

A particular piece of Gersht’s that jostled my memory, was a video of a ring-necked pheasant, hanging by its leg from a piece of string. It was back-dropped against a neo-classical vignette, the familiar “nature morte” scene.

Using a deep pool of water in the foreground with grapes draped over a limestone window ledge, the pheasant with its glistening amber and black feathers is plunged into the water in an intimate slow motion descent as the bird’s mirrored reflection is captured in a process the artist describes as “life folding into itself”. It brought to mind my pheasant encounter.

Returning at dusk from the barn with my canine companion I witnessed a car speeding down Montauk Highway. I had been about to crossover when, in a flash, I heard what sounded like a human shriek and the metallic squeal of brakes and held the dog away from the gravel-edged road.

When I strode over to examine the scene I saw a pheasant that had been struck a glancing, but fatal blow. Instinctively, the dog grasped the magnificent bird in his soft mouth, his pride evident as he carried his quarry back to the old house. But I had an instinct too, and it was to cook the gamebird.

The sun was low in the west-facing kitchen and the rows of Mason jars on the window ledge gleamed in the honeyed light. The cats circled and sniffed, jockeying for position in an ancient ritual of dividing the spoils. What to do with a bird with all its feathers intact and no firm idea how to proceed to relieve it of its downy cloak? I wondered.

I reached for the “Joy of Cooking” and began to read, “The worldly-wise cook will not be content with chicken and dumplings, roast turkey or quail on toast. But he will welcome into the kitchen some of the specialities – chicken cacciatore, duck bigerade, turkey mole, pheasant smitane – all of which have enlivened a global cuisine.” Imagine, if you will, that these words were originally penned in 1931 by Irma S. Rombauer, who would have been right at home blogging her recipes today.

It goes on to instruct, “Preheat oven to 450 degrees.. Prepare for roasting 5 or 6 pheasants.” The recipe required no less than 17 different ingredients. The directions for plucking the bird were equally as puzzling to a neophyte. They spoke of dry plucking and singeing.

All called for first checking for shot with a pointed instrument before proceeding…nothing about recently deceased specimens or automobiles. My spectacular bird now appeared more problematical than it had at first sight.

At that point in my culinary career, if one could call it that, I had only seen live game in cages. You simply pointed at your selection and it was taken in the back of the store and dispatched by an unseen hand, whereupon a short time later it emerged sanitarily wrapped and looking dandy in bright white butcher paper. This avian situation clearly demanded a great deal more serious contemplation and study.

The cats continued to circle and I wondered how I would find cognac, port or Madeira in a town that had only a post office and a liquor store shuttered for the season.

I found a recipe for marinating the bird and cooking it in “vin ordinaire” but it complicated the preparation by dictating, “Let stand in the refrigerator for three days.” I was concerned about draining the blood out before cold storage and couldn’t remember what if anything needed to be done to satisfy that requirement.

“Remove all pin feathers – use a pair of tweezers,” or “After removing the coarser feathers…you may use the paraffin method. Make up a mixture of 3/8 lb. of melted paraffin and 7 quarts of boiling water.” Without either the paraffin or a pot that could hold 7 quarts of water plus a bird, I was at a stalemate. In any case the feathers had to be plucked first.

I did, after many hours, pluck every feather by hand and at last stared down at the lowly bird whose size and majesty had diminished substantially.

The cats, who had scampered over every surface of that large kitchen angling for a better vantage point from which to witness my futile labors, kept up a dull but even growl. At last I dropped the bird into the largest pot I could find, boiled it up and fed it to my feline audience. I never did have a single bite, my appetite gone with the fervor of the cats’ single-mindedness of purpose and the sight of feathers floating throughout the kitchen.

Here is my recommendation for a chilly winter’s day:


Pan fry bacon until crisp. Don’t bother to drain on paper towels, you’ll lose all the tasty bacon fat. Toast two slices of your favorite bread. Spread any sort of peanut butter you like on the toast and lay at least four strips of bacon on top. Serve with any sherry you can dig out of the back of the liquor cabinet, fino or oloroso, Jerez or Gallo, preferably in a large glass. Invite your friends over in the late afternoon to share in this ritual. Relax and enjoy.

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