Thanksgiving is less than a week away and that got me to thinking about another bird that has been part of traditional celebratory meals – the peacock.
One day when I was reading my hometown newspaper I came across the reader’s Q & A Section where someone asked the unlikely question “Does Anyone Know if Peacock Tastes Good?”. I looked at it with some trepidation not knowing whether to reply. Answering it might have caused people to think I was part of some underground gourmet society like Brando and Broderick in the film The Freshman. But as a matter of fact I knew the answer to the question and the answer was “I do!”.
On one of my earlier trips to Italy, I along with our Italian cousins were invited to a friend’s house in Treviso for Sunday dinner. As we drove up through the gates of the farmhouse villa there were peacocks roaming the grounds. Little did we know that they would be part of the afternoon meal. In Italy peacock is called pavone and prepared similar to pheasant or turkey. Over 4 hours, our host, an Italian book editor, served a wonderful dinner of several courses that began with a brodo made with peacock and nidi d’amore, little nests of pasta filled with ground veal floating in the broth. This was followed by braised peacock, then goose and an Italian style meatloaf. Fantastici! The pavone was served on the bone and the legs were large , much bigger than a turkey. The meat was dark and flavorful and did not taste gamey at all. In the beginning we were not told we were eating peacock. I suppose our Italian hosts weren’t quite sure how gli americani would react.
In Italy there is a culinary tradition of eating all types of birds – chickens, hens, capons, pigeons, partridges. Our Nonna told us about a time when her family in the Veneto caught small song birds in nets draped between trees. The custom is commemorated in various polenta dishes including a dessert called Polenta e Osei, a specialty of Bergamo. Eating peacock was not unheard of although reserved for the culturally elite. Served at lavish Renaissance banquets or at the dining tables of 16th century cardinals and popes, peacock was a popular center of the plate item among the aristocracy. The Italian scholar and cookbook author Platina, who dined with the Gonzagas in Renaissance Mantua, described peacock as “more suitable to the table of kings and princes than the lowly men of little property”. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco segreto, private cook to five pontiffs mentions roasted peacock as one of his favorite recipes often prepared with an extravagant use of spices. Once cooked he suggests that the bird be reassembled with metal rods and have its feathers reattached come se fosse vivo “as if it were still alive” for a spectacular display.
The elaborate, ancient and eccentric preparations of peacock make eating it seem decadent and disturbing. Yet I felt neither during the meal in Treviso. It all seemed very natural, rustic and homey, sharing the bounty of the family farm at the table with our Italian family and friends. Much like Thanksgiving dinner.
If you were wondering whether I answered the Q & A question in my hometown newspaper I did. Did they publish it. No.