Antipodean Psittacophagy

First published in Gastronomica 5:2, Spring 2005

galahs sydney park dec 2016

Bruce Boehrer, writing in a recent issue of Gastronomica, sought to answer the question why parrot has disappeared from the world table. The substantial part of his argument is as follows:

‘Prior to 1492 there existed a tradition of classical psittacophagy (parrot eating), interrupted by the relative scarcity of parrots in the Middle Ages, that could have revived once the Americas began to yield a regular supply of these birds for the European market. But by the 1600s it is clear, instead, that Westerners tended to think of parrots as pets and as zoological marvels and annoyances, but seldom as dinner….Europe in the Age of Exploration developed a new context for psittacophagy, in which eating parrot is associated not with classical luxury, but with American barbarism.[i]

What caught my attention particularly were what seemed at face value two wild claims for the place of parrot on the tables of past and present Australian Aborigines and nineteenth century Australian pioneers. Pursuing his theme of the relationship between psittacophagy and anthropophagy Boehrer says:

‘This parallelism becomes visible in the fact that psittacophagy takes on forms that recall the traditional anthropological distinction between “survival cannibalism” and “ritual cannibalism”. Of survival and ritual psittacophagy, the former is more common, appearing frequently in non-Western societies faced with limited sources of animal protein. Among these the tribes of pre-Colombian America offer an important case…But the peoples of West Africa and T’ang China also ate parrots, as did – and do – the aborigines (sic) of Australia.’ [ii]

Both claims in relation to Australia are not referenced in an article that is otherwise rigorous in this regard. This was sufficient to ruffle my gastronomic feathers; it’s annoying to have the interested or disputatious reader of journals such as Gatronomica unable to track and review primary sources. But what really got my Australian cultural dander up higher than the sulphur crest of the eponymous cockatoo was the implication that both Aboriginal and migrant settler Australians had continued with a barbaric practice that the rest of Western civilization, according to Boehrer’s thesis, had transcended at least 200 years prior to white settlement of Australia. It helped not at all that Boehrer attempted to soften the blow by suggesting that the continuation of psittacophagy in late colonial Australia was ‘a matter of necessity’ and that ‘Parrot pie has long since vanished from the repertoire of Australian cooking’.[iii]

However, I tapped into other parts of my cultural construction and decide to give him ‘a fair go’, and embarked on a search for the missing potential references to psittacophagy among my fellows; to lift the crust, as it were, and see whether there were at any time pieces of polly in the centerpiece of Australian cuisine past and present, the meat pie, and if there were, why this was no longer so.

Turning to recent books that have explored transgressive food, I looked in both Schwabe’s Unmentionable Cuisine (1996) and in Jerry Hopkins Extreme Cuisine (2004). [iv] Nothing in the former, but there was an entry on psittacophagy and Australians in Hopkins directly quoting Alan Davidson.[v] So I turned next to the Magus himself, where in his magnum opus, The Oxford Companion to Food, I found the following:

‘(parrots) have been eaten, for example, in Papua New Guinea, and also in past times in Australia and New Zealand. One can find traces of dishes such as parrot pie in early Australasian cookbooks..’[vi]

I gave a small sigh of relief; at least he had broadened the potential transgressors to include other of my Oceania fellows, and misery, or in my case putative moral degeneracy by association, loves company.

Either of these could have been sources for Boehrer. But where did Davidson get his information from? His tome is frustrating in that notes like this are themselves not referenced in the text itself and you have to scan his Bibliography for a likely source. My efforts produced Australian food writer Richard Beckett’s Convicted Tastes (1984) where I came across this:

‘One turns now to the parrot family. Given the bush culinary abuse that has been heaped on at least two members of that tribe – notably the galah and the sulphur-crested cockatoo – one is also surprised to note that recipes for them survived into the 20th century’.[vii]

It was at this point that I had to concede Australian psittacophagy, for Beckett’s evidence is a recipe for parrot pies from Mrs. Margaret J Pearson, author of Cookery Recipes for the People, which was popular enough to have gone into a third edition by 1894.[viii]

‘8 parroquets, 4 eggs (boiled 10 mins, until hard and then put into cold water), Teaspoon of lemon juice, ½ lb bacon or ham, Little good gravy or stock, 1 lb of fillet of beef cut into thin slices, Rough puff paste.

 Cut the birds into two, and rub well with butter, place the slices of beef in a pie dish and place on them birds and slices of ham, cut in neat pieces the hard boiled eggs and add, then pour in a cup of well-seasoned stock: cover over with rough puff paste, decorate with cut leaves etc., from the paste stick the legs and feet well cleaned and blanched in the centre.’ [ix]

Still, one parrot pit does not a nation of psittacophagists make. Is there other evidence than Mrs. Pearson? Mrs. Lance (Mina) Rawson, author of The Antipodean Cookery Book and the Kitchen Companion (1895) gives the following recipe:

To cook parrots –

Ingredients: One dozen parrots, 1 ounce butter, and 1 ounce, 1/2 pint milk, seasoning of pepper, salt and nutmeg, 1 tablespoonful of chopped parsley, a little stock. Mode: Mix the butter and the flour smoothly in a stewpan over a moderate fire. Gradually add the milk and seasoning. Stir the sauce till it boils, then pour in as much stock as will make it sufficient for the birds. Put in the parrots, well-picked and cleaned, and let them stew, closely covered until they are tender. Add a little extra milk or stock if it boils away much. About five minutes before serving sprinkle in the chopped parsley. Serve very hot, with the sauce poured round the birds.[x]

The 1892 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book included a section on Australian cookery which included a recipe for parrot pie.[xi]  So, I had now uncovered three references to parrot pie in cookery books that would all have been available to the Australian housekeeper of the late 19th century. But does the repetition of a dish in three contemporaneous sources necessarily mean that the dish is can be described as standard?

I sought the opinion of other learned food writers in Australia to see what they had to say on the place of psittacophagy as standard fare at the pioneer and colonial table. Michael Symonds, author of One Continuous Picnic, responded thus:

‘Somewhere I retain an exercise book in which I kept a record between 1977 and 1982 of any interesting Australian recipe. It might have something in there about parrots. But I suspect not much, because I don’t seem to have carried anything like that through to One Continuous Picnic. Someone mentioned an unnamed ‘fruit bird’. My feeling is that parrot pie was certainly not a ‘standard’ colonial dish. You know those jokes about galahs – boil with a boot, throw away bird and eat the boot. Particular fruit birds might work, though, presumably?’[xii]

I do indeed know the joke. It is undoubtedly what most comes to mind if you ask any foodie in Australia, and a substantial part of the older generation of Australians, about the place of parrots in our cuisine. It’s a joke that’s recycled by Davidson and Hopkins, though not, disappointingly, by Boehrer. Laurel Dyson in How to Cook a Galah (2002) gives the following recipe:

How to Cook a Galah

Serves 1 New Chum

 This famous bush classic needs no introduction to Australians and I recommend it wholeheartedly to any unacquainted with the delights of our cuisine! With all such recipes one cannot stress enough the importance of employing only ingredients of the choicest quality.

 1 galah, plucked and drawn                  1 bouquet garni

1 stone, brick or axe head                        A dash of very dry white wine

1 onion, stuck with 6 cloves                   A good pinch of salt.

 Put all the ingredients in a large pot and add enough water to cover well. Replace the lid and bring to the boil. Simmer very gently until the stone, brick or axe is soft when pierced by a fork. The galah will then be ready to serve.[xiii]

It’s a nice twist, serving up the galah to a New Chum; not, I’m afraid, a new friend or pal, but, in idiomatic Australian, a new arrival who is ripe for duping. Fahey has a different version, supposedly told to a traveler in the Australian outback by a ‘bushman’, a pioneer in Boehrer’s terms. The traveler first recounts his own attempt to cook a galah, which is in effect a re-telling of the standard joke. He then continues:

‘Later I asked a bushman the correct way to cook a galah, as I had been told it was a common item on the bush menu. This bushman told me that the only successful way is to get a farrier’s rasp and file the galah to a powder. Mix with water and make a soup.’[xiv]

To be fair to the galah, Fahey also includes an unsourced ‘genuine’ recipe:

‘First catch your galah, but be careful how you pluck them for this is what makes them tough. Add half a teaspoon of salt and one of sugar for every galah you have in the pan. Roll them in flour and fry them in melted butter or fat until they are golden brown. Then add available vegetables and the juice from the frying pan and a good dollop of Worcestershire sauce and simmer for an hour and a half.’[xv]

Does the presence of recipes for parrot pie in popular cookery books and the common  disparagement of the worth of cooking a galah lend weight to Boehrer’s contention that where parrots occur in the indigenous Aboriginal and pioneer diet they are there as a matter of survival?

Boehrer advances no evidence that Aboriginal Australians (always capitalized, by the way, in current literature to acknowledge their place as peoples with nations) ate parrots because of limited sources of animal protein, or that they continue to do so for this reason. What even the most cursory look at material on the diet of past and present Aboriginal peoples shows, on the contrary, is that they were able to eat from a wide range of animal protein in all parts of the continent. Brian Murton, writing of indigenous food systems of Australian Aborigines in the Cambridge World History of Food notes that ‘Considerable variation also existed in the types of flesh eaten’ of which he notes snakes and lizards, especially two species of “monitor” lizard or goanna, a number of small marsupials and rodents, “possums” (phalangers) various gliders, the koala, various types of “flying foxes”, bandicoots and other marsupial “mice” and “rats”, larger marsupials (the red and grey kangaroo, the euro, wallaby), fish, shellfish, crustaceans, sea turtles, and dugong.[xvi] ‘Birds constituted an important source of food, although in very dry areas they were probably only substantial food items following the infrequent heavy rains’ among which were emu, ‘plentiful and available throughout the year, but they were difficult to catch’ on the plains of the north, east, and southwest; ducks, black swans and other waterfowl which were ‘abundant in swamps and lagoons and along the rivers’  of the southeast; wild turkeys as an ‘excellent source’ on the open plains; and smaller birds which ‘could be hit with stones relatively easily’. [xvii]

What, no parrots? Well, as it happens, they did also eat parrot. Walter Woodbury, British settler, wrote to his mother in June 1853:

‘We have had a tribe of the native Blacks camped near us for the last week so that we have an excellent opportunity of seeing how they live. …. Their principle food is the opossum which they find out by knocking on the trees and where they find a hollow sound they cut open the tree and so catch the opossum. They also kill turkeys, pigeons and parrots with the boomerang which they are very expert at throwing. When they are very hungry and can get nothing else they will pick up the spiders, beetles, cockroaches and ants and eat them.’[xviii]

Here is a presumably enlightened Christian settler, 200 years after Boehrer’s suggested cut off date for the European acceptability of eating parrot, reporting on psittacophagy among these newer world indigenes, with nary the hint of condemnation.

There is evidence of psittacophagy also in the languages of Aboriginal peoples today. In Arrernte, the language of the peoples of Central Australia, the term kere thipe is used to describe birds eaten by them. Among the birds so described are Major Mitchell cockatoo, pink cockatoo, ringneck parrot, Port Lincoln Parrot, budgerigar, galah, black cockatoo and red-tailed black cockatoo. But is this evidence of turning to parrot because of a scarcity of other sources of animal protein? The Arrernte also classed as kere thipe the crested pigeon, wild turkey, bustard, rock pigeon, plumed pigeon and spinifex pigeon. Their diet also includes freshwater crays and other small water creatures, sand goanna, Gould’s goanna, sand monitor, bearded dragon, carney, carpet snake, dragon lizard, red kangaroo, bandicoot, possum, euro, rock wallaby, anteater porcupine.[xix] Oh that I could be faced with such a scarcity of animal protein!

There is another counter to the scarcity argument in recent discussion of Aboriginal people’s practice of ‘fire-stick farming’. Johnson and colleagues in the Northern Territory and Gibson in Western Australia have considered the reasons for the extinction in the last 30 – 40 years of what are designated as middle-sized native mammals, those weighing between 500 gms to 5 kilos, such as desert bandicoots. Their contention is that at least in part, the survival of these mammals well into the middle of the 20th century was due to the Aboriginal peoples practice of selectively burning off small patches of habitat in such a way as create a balance between old unburned areas which could provide shelter for the mammals, and newly cleared patches that would produce new leaves and shoots as food for the mammals.[xx] If this argument holds, it is an interesting challenge to Boehrer’s implicit view of Aboriginal peoples as opportunistic feeders who are open to the vagaries of population change in their primary foods sources and so turn to other sources, like parrots, as these times. Instead, we have a picture of people actively ensuring the continuation of availability of their food sources to stave of scarcity.

No, it seems to me that Aboriginal Australians eat parrot because they’re there and because they want to. They and we are after all omnivores. Paul Rozin argues that being so, we are subject to two contradictory urges, neophilia (curiosity towards new foods, and aversion to monotony) and neophobia (culinary conservatism, the avoidance of danger be avoiding the unknown or new).[xxi] Avoidance of monotony seems simpler and more likely stimulus to psittacophagy here than survival. I don’t know what parrot tastes like for reasons I’ll get to, but Boehrer quotes James Audubon in 1831 as saying of North America’s only indigenous parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, that ‘their flesh is tolerable food when young, on account of which many of them are shot.’[xxii] Certainly, I can’t see the Arrernte persevering with eating so many kinds of parrot in the face of the diversity of alternative animal flesh in the area unless its taste was pleasant also. Interestingly, while they eat galah, it is apparently not a major source of food, though it is in the area as abundantly as the other parrots.[xxiii]  [xxiv] Maybe, they, like the originator of the joke, find galah a tough tasteless bird. The lack of taste, or the unpleasantness of taste may also be why they don’t eat other birds in the area – crow, magpie, Willie wagtail, eagle or mopoke owl. It seems to me about time that anthropologists allowed for the possibility that all sorts of food choices may have everything to do with taste and nothing to do with either nutrition, survival or purity and danger.

But did omnivorous white settlers and pioneers (a vague term for which Boehrer unhelpfully does not suggest a dating) resolve Rozin’s contradiction by turning to parrot in the face of a scarcity of familiar animal protein sources? The first and subsequent fleets to arrive in Sydney from England brought with them sheep, cattle, pigs, but they were needed to establish the longer term herds and flocks; a pig and five sheep had been killed by lightning two days after the first landing.[xxv] Still, they weren’t without familiar sources of animal protein. Here’s a marine writing home in 1790, two years after the landing of the first fleet.

‘Our present allowance is a short one: two pounds of pork which was cured for years ago, and shrinks to nothing if boiled), two pounds and a half of flour, a pound of rice and a pint of pease per week is what we live on. Now, on this ration, reduced as it is, I have no fear of being able to crawl on for many months to come….all things will yet do, for when I spoke of only eight week’s provisions in the stores, I meant at full allowance, whereas what we are at present is but a third…..Again, to help us out, we user every means to get fish, and sometimes with good success, which is an incredible relief.’[xxvi]

The fish included giant stingrays weighing in at 200 kilograms that swam in the harbour, till they were hunted to extinction.[xxvii] There were also green turtles, a delicacy warranting advertising in the colony’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette.[xxviii] Yet these early settler also took the other omnivore option and were soon hunting animals outside the familiar, the wide diversity of marsupials in this new land, including rock wallabies (extinct by 1860) and bandicoots.[xxix] Some reports on the consumption of kangaroo suggest that their inclusion of at least was not only in search of diversity but for reasons of taste and their sheer abundance.

‘Its meat is very good sustenance, inferior to veal, but better than many others, substantial, tender without the gameyness of goat, nor as greasy as mutton, very superior to that of guanaco and to that of hare. In the colony there is a great consumption of it, it is almost the only one which is eaten; there were very few times that it was missing from our table, and it always made several meals. I do not know  if there will always be the abundance of this season, but a consumption so excessive and the progress of the population must winnow them; perhaps an attempt to domesticate them would have the desired effect.’[xxx]

But perhaps these are the observations of the relatively well-off, what of others in the colony? The letter of a female convict suggests that a lack of animal protein was not among her concerns, either:

‘As for the distresses of the women, they are past description, as they are deprived of tea, and other things they were indulged in in the voyage by the seamen…’[xxxi]

Settlers did also eat parrot. Here’s Sarah Brunskill writing to her mother in 1839 from Sydney:

‘Parrots, cockatoos, lauries and magpies abound, kangaroo is very scarce, I have not seen any, but those who have tasted it pronounce it delicious. Parrot pie is very good, very like pigeon.’[xxxii]

Is this now evidence of turning to parrot in times of scarcity? The context suggests otherwise. Indeed Haines suggests the contrary:

‘Contrary to the popular imagination, nineteenth century voyages to Australia offered an abundant diet, and were an unprecedented triumph in terms of saving life…Many immigrants originated in the poorer agricultural regions of the United Kingdom where proximity to food sources did not guarantee access to a healthy diet…Thus the sense of liberation generated by letters describing free, and lawful access to game and the availability of cheap fertile land, were meant not only to give good, sound advice, but to affirm the immigrants’ newly acquired independence and social mobility 12000 miles from home.’[xxxiii]

There is one other place to look for pioneer psittacophagy and that is in the diaries of early explorers. Ludwig Leichhardt recorded eating cockatoo on several occasions on his 1844 expedition including once as ‘Christmas dinner of suet pudding and stewed parrot’. There is no suggestion of distaste or moral ambiguity when he notes it, it’s just available food. He goes so far at one stage as to have a good poke around in the stomach of one and finds some grain which he tastes and notes is perhaps suitable for cropping. [xxxiv] But he also notes meals of wallaby (once accompanied by a cockatoo soup), pigeon, wild duck, kangaroo and emu. I don’t think we can talk about Leichhardt turning to parrot for survival in the face of a scarcity of other options.

Certainly by the time that Mrs. Pearson, Mina Rawson, and Mrs. Beeton were writing, reports on the colonies in Australia (this was still pre-Federation, so each major settlement and its area of governance, like Sydney or Melbourne, were independent colonies) painted a picture of plenty. Here’s the Reverend James Morison writing in 1867:

‘..the consumption of animal food is very great in the Australian colonies. Beef or mutton is the principal dietary in the three meals a day, and every individual is estimated to consume a bullock a year.’ [xxxv]

Historian Geoffrey Blainey offers harder data:

‘In 1890 the average Australian – including man, woman and toothless baby – ate a third of a kilo of meat a day. In Queensland, where official statistics were less reliable, the average person at half a kilo of meat a day. In the country as a whole the typical family of four required, in the course of one year, the killing of one large bullock and eight small sheep for its own supply of meat. The average Australian ate twice as much meat as the average person in England and the United States, four times as much meat as the average German and French diner, and  – if the Italian statistics are reliable – twelve times as much meat as the average Italian. Here were the great meat eaters of the world.’[xxxvi]

Blainey puts forward three reasons for the preponderance of meat on the menu; the grasslands of Australia could feed large herds and flocks; distance favoured eating meat, as cattle and sheep could walk to inland towns where other food had to be carted in at a heavy cost; meat was cheap as there was no export market for surplus meat.[xxxvii] Clements and Rogers support this view:

‘Sales of wool were made in England from 1815 onwards with such success that most landowners endeavoured to engage in sheep farming. After a road had been made over the Blue Mountains to the plains beyond the flocks of sheep increased rapidly. Sheep were grown for their wool and hence from shortly after the foundations of the various settlements, there was a surplus of meat, at least compared with supplies available to the same people in England before migration.’[xxxviii]

So, back to the parrot pie recipes around which most of the citations for psittacophagy among pre 20th centuries flock. It is clear that by the time of the appearance of parrot pie in Australian cookery books, if not the repertoire of the Australian housekeeper, there was certainly no necessity for anyone to be eating parrot.  So what is it doing there?

Bannerman, in his review of Australian cookery books, raises a cautionary note on the publication of recipes that offers some food for thought.

‘Publication of a recipe is not evidence that a dish was commonly made; was it published in response to popular demand or as an item of novelty or passing interest, which may or may not be taken up by readers?….(some) dishes were probably included for the sake of completeness or to lend a touch of class, with no great expectation that they would often be made….if it were commonly thought that any good book of recipes should tell you how to roast a pheasant, though few people expected ever to have one, or how to braise a calf’s head, through few people might ever have wanted one, then the frequency of such dishes in print would certainly be misleading.’[xxxix]

Perhaps then the parrots are in Pearson because they wanted to grab a share of the market for Australian identified cookery books opened by Mrs. Beeton and included them simply because she did. But let’s look for some less mercenary motive. I haven’t been able to access the 1892 Mrs. Beeton, but I do have a 1909 edition. The reference to Australian cooking has gone, and with it the recipe for parrot pie, but there is a recipe for pigeon pie for which the ingredients and method are the same as in Pearson’s recipe, right down to those decorative little feet sticking out the top of the pie, with pigeon where Pearson has parrot. [xl] In Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene there is a similar recipe for Piccione all’Inglese o piccion paio (Pigeon English-style, or pigeon pie). [xli] The ingredients are Italianised to include prosciutto instead of ham, veal instead of steak, and Artusi goes so far as to suggest a variation to give it even more of an ‘Italian character’ by including cock’s combs, sweetbreads and truffles. The pie recipe is one of four Artusi gives for pigeon, and is nestled between three for wild duck and two for thrushes. Finally, there is a very similar recipe for pigeon pie in the Australian Amy Schauer’s Schauer Cookery Book (1909).

So it looks like Pearson’s recipe is simply a variation on a common recipe for pigeon pie. But there’s something puzzling about these pies be they parrot or pigeon. Take Beckett’s comments on Mrs. Pearson’s recipe:

‘This is a parrot pie very heavily disguised. With the addition of beef, ham, hard-boiled eggs and a good gravy, one could probably have been able to push the parrots to the side of one’s plate and forget all about them’.[xlii]

Indeed. Moreover, one could well have dispensed with the parrot entirely, surely, unless there was a particular reason to have it in there. Bannerman, commenting on Schaeur’s recipe suggests ‘One can’t escape the conclusion that pigeon pie was first and foremost a way of making a couple of little birds ‘do’ at a large table’.[xliii] This seems to me unconvincing if the sense of it is that one has to stretch the meat of two birds a long way for lack of other meat, which is clearly not the case in these pies. There’s a lot of meat about. It does make sense if you take the recipe to be a way of adding a highlight to your dinner by having a small taste of something exotic in with the rest of the meat.

I think this interpretation is strengthened when we consider the audience for these cookery books. Mennell describes Mrs. Beeton’s book as ‘the first (English) book written unambiguously for an urban middle class audience….(she) wrote at length about precisely those matters which were causes of concern and social anxiety to the aspiring middle classes.’[xliv] Phillips describes the market for Artusi’s book as the emerging Italian middle class, ‘households prosperous enough to eat meat regularly, if not daily and to enjoy a varied diet, but not wealthy enough to afford the armies of servants employed by the aristocracy.’[xlv]

Parrot pie a la Pearson it seems to me is very much a dish that displays the aspirations of its at least moderately wealthy hostess. Firstly, it has that exotic ingredient, parrot. Exotic meats, says Blainey, were demanded by the wealthy of the cities.[xlvi] Much of this meat came from Australian native birds, which in this colony, barely 100 years old, were still certainly exotic. Quail, pigeon, black duck, black swan, wild turkey, magpie goose, all fetched high prices. It’s a practice Boehrer is familiar with, having noted it with respect to other peoples in other times:

‘Indeed, the ancient Romans distinguish themselves among Western peoples through their tendency to treat parrot as a culinary delicacy rather than as an entrée of last resort….But it’s clear enough that they were popular in their day – not as everyday fare, but as over-the-top edibles for the rich and famous….A thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire, as European explorers discovered new lands teeming with parrots and European scholars rediscovered obscure fragments of classical literary culture, these same records would lend potential precedent to resurgence of psittacophagy in the Renaissance.’[xlvii]

Boehrer unfortunately doesn’t dip into recipe books of the time other than noting the popularity of the 1498 appearance in print of Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria, which itself doesn’t have a recipe for parrot but does deal with guinea fowl, crane and flamingo.[xlviii]

Secondly, the parrot dishes of both Rawson and Pearson (and Beeton’s pigeon pie) are eminently suitable ways for a hostess to proclaim that she is time rich or that she can marshall the time of more than one servant. Look at the number of parrots required in both Rawson’s and Pearson’s recipes; a dozen and eight respectively. It’s a time rich housekeeper who is going sit down and make ensure that many small birds are ‘well-picked and clean’ as called for by Rawson. It’s an even more time rich housekeeper who is going to follow Pearson’s recipe and nip polly’s feet off, clean and blanch them and stick them up-side down out of the pie when it’s cooked. I recently turned my hand to plucking a very large duck and was taken aback at how long it took and how tedious the task was of getting every little stubble feather of it. I can’t see the average lower class housekeeper of the turn of the century spending time regularly plucking a dozen parrots just to bake them up with a lot of other meats. I can see a middle or upper class hostess who wants to impress getting her cook or maid to do the plucking and snipping, while perhaps finishing those little feet herself.

It was not only at the domestic table that the colonists sought to show their sophistication. Here’s a report from the Illustrated Sydney News of 1854 on the Café Restaurant Francais, in George St. Describing the café as ‘This attractive temple dedicated to the genius of French cookery’ it went on to note:

‘Our English readers will doubtless imagine, when they hear of a restaurant being established in Sydney, that the most recherché plates will consist of kangaroo steaks or parrot pie…until the opening of this very excellent restaurant, we are quite of the opinion that Sydney was immersed in the thickest darkness in culinary matters….those who have a taste for something better than too-recently killed mutton or sodden beef, may here gratify their palates.’[xlix]

Note that parrot pie here is not being described as barbaric or the food of the desperate, but, however ironically, as potentially recherché in the eyes of English readers; rare, choice, of studied refinement or elegance, offering some indication of an attempt at sophistication as opposed to be more expected sodden beef.

Finally there is all that other meat. What better way to announce your wealth, or aspiration to it, than to present a dish that uses three or four different kinds of meat. What then of Rawson’s recipe where parrot is the sole meat? In her Preface, Rawson declares her intention thus: ‘Once more I come before my sister housewives with a cheap and useful little work on cookery, adapted and written expressly to meet the wants and circumstances of those living in the far Bush, as well as those who dwell within reach of the amenities of civilized existence’.[l] At first glance, this looks like parrot pit when it appears will be for meeting ‘wants’ of the housewife in the Bush.  But I think this is to seriously mis-read Rawson. Here she is from the section in the book she titled ‘Food Value of the Bush’:

‘In the far Bush the housewife is very often at her wits end to know what to do for a change of diet…..Whatever the blacks eat the whites may safely try. Speaking personally, I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the different edible ground game, recipes for the cooking of which have been given in this and my other works on cookery. Many people are disgusted at the mere idea of eating the white wood grub which the blacks are so fond of. As a matter of fact, there is nothing nasty or disgusting in these soft white morsels, any more than there is in an oyster….There is also a large brown grass hopper, which is edible and very good when parched. I know of nothing better than the tail or part of a young iguana….Carpet snake is very good roasted….I have used kangaroo and wallaby, salted and cured, the same as beef, and, save for the absence of fat, consider them almost as good….I would advise every housewife in the Bush to experiment and try everything….There is a great amount of pleasure to be gained in trying new dishes with primitive materials. The Bush teems with animal life, and are we not told that the Almighty has placed it there for the benefit and sustenance of man?[li]

In keeping with this magnificent demonstration of the resolution of the omnivore’s paradox, Rawson’s recipe To Cook Parrots comes between To Pickle Ham and Bacon and Peach Snowballs. Rawson is urging her contemporaries to eat widely not out of scarcity of animal protein but out of a combination of boredom and duty to the Almighty, which it seems to me puts her in direct opposition to Boehrer.

Boehrer tries to bolster his necessity-is-a-mother-of-gustation in argument in relation to the Australian pioneers with the observation that ‘Parrot pie has long since vanished from the repertoire of Australian cooking’, presumably on the basis that the necessity has also long since vanished.[lii] Like his failure to pinpoint who he classifies as pioneers, he’s not specific on what period of time ‘long since vanished’ signifies. But let’s take it to mean the last 100 or so years. It is true that within the space of 20 years of the publication of Pearson’s book, parrot recipes have disappeared from common Australian cookery books and they remain absent until reproduced in facsimile productions of the earlier books or in reviews of the development of the Australian diet such as Beckett’s.[liii] Why might this be?

Certainly, Australians continued to have one of the highest rates of consumption of meat in the world throughout the early part of the 20th century, with ‘it being common for meat to be eaten at each of the three main meals of the day.’[liv]  Even during the Depression of the 1930’s or during droughts when meat from cattle and sheep was scarcer there was rabbit, imported into Australia in 1859:

‘In this paradise of cheap meat, the succulent rabbit soon became the cheapest of all. In the history of the world, few other meats moved so swiftly from the status of luxury to that of all-too-common….…During the Depression of the1930’s tens of thousands of families were to rely heavily on stewed or roasted rabbit.’[lv]

Cookery books that were popular during the Depression and into the 1950’s have many recipes for rabbit and pigeon, but none for parrot.[lvi] The consumption of rabbit meat declined, however, after World War 2 as a result of increasing wealth (people being able to afford more expensive cuts of meat) and the spread of the disease myxamatosis among the rabbit population.[lvii]

Also, by the early 20th century, the available methods of preserving meat had broadened such that meat could be kept for long periods to compensate for any short-term scarcity.

Sizar Elliot, a Sydney grocer, succeeded in first canning meat in Australia in 1846, and while it did not gain general popularity, it made up a substantial part of the diet of some of those who may have been more socially likely to face a scarcity of fresh meat.

‘Throughout rural districts there were many, such as pensioners, the elderly, smallholders and an itinerant population of trappers, odd-job men, drovers and so on, living, for the most part, on unbalanced diets of canned foods supplemented when possible with fresh food.’[lviii]

In 1880 the first successful shipment of refrigerated beef, mutton and butter reached England from Australia.[lix] By the turn of the century, ice chests for the suburban kitchen were available.[lx] For those who couldn’t afford an ice chest there was the Coolgardie safe, a simple form of meat safe that any home carpenter could build, where evaporating water provided the cooling. Blainey suggests that by the 1930’s three out of every four Australian households had a Coolgardie safe.[lxi]

So, perhaps one reason parrot left the menu was that Rawson’s housewives were increasingly able to vary their diet with meats that were at the very least less time-consuming to catch and prepare.

Recipes for parrot pie do appear at times in cookery books in Australia still, but as curios. For example, here’s the version from Mrs. W Jacques of Bengworden in the Special – Early Recipes section of Is Emu on the Menu? (1965).

‘Dress parrots allowing at least 2 to each person. Place in saucepan barely cover with water and simmer gently for about 4 hours. This time is necessary as some parrots are a great age and tough. When tender turn into pie dish. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Cover with pastry and cook 30 – 40 minutes in moderate oven.’[lxii]

When Crooke reproduced the recipe she was cautious enough to include a sidebar which read; Note: – Emus, Parrots and Kangaroos are protected under Wild Life Conservation Laws today.[lxiii]  Which brings me to the most significant reason for the absence of parrot from Australian menus and that is the growth since the 1860’s of legislation protecting fauna in Australia. In the period 1860 – 1866, each of the colonies in Australia at that time enacted such legislation.[lxiv] The New South Wales Act of 1866 is typical of these in that its main focus is the protection of imported game – pheasants, partridges, grouse, hares and deer – with the protection of a small number of native birds as a secondary consideration. None of the latter are parrots; wild ducks, emu, brolgas, wild turkey, black swans, wild geese, bronze-winged pigeons and quail are protected during their breeding season and the taking of their eggs is also prohibited. It would seem that at this stage while parrot was being eaten it was not standard fare enough to warrant protection as game.[lxv]

Subsequent Acts and amendments continued to protect native birds on this basis. However, in the debates to establish the NSW Birds Protection Act, 1881, a new vector was introduced, that of protecting native birds being exploited for the exotic feathers market. Interestingly, the black swan was not one of those given absolute protection on the basis that it was in some parts of the colony ‘a necessary article of food to persons in poor circumstances and it would be wrong to deprive them of this article of diet.’[lxvi] Parrots continued to be unprotected.

It was under the Birds and Animals Protection Act 1918 that the significant shift occurred.

‘The bill had been prepared by the newly-formed (1909) Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia….(The act) considerably broadened the principle of the earlier legislation that all birds and animals were unprotected unless specifically protected. In the new act, all birds and animals were protected except those which were considered noxious and were mentioned in the schedules. These initially included, in the case of birds (Schedule 1) the cormorant (five species), crow, galah, white cockatoo, rosella, rainbow lorikeet, and wedge-tailed eagle, among others….’[lxvii]

This Act moved wildlife protection generally away from its basis in purely economic considerations and into the realm of emerging interest in the scientific and aesthetic value of wildlife. The objects of the Wild Life Preservation Society make the scientific aspect explicit:

‘The Wild Life Preservation Society has been formed for the purpose of preserving intact the typical fauna of Australia. Many birds and animals of great scientific interest and national value are in danger of extinction, and the present generation of Australians must not incur the reproach of allowing even a single species to perish.’[lxviii]

Sir Joseph Carruthers, while endorsing the economic grounds for protection, also articulated the growing aesthetic of Nature:

‘..we should have that delightful thing which is part of the higher training of mankind – we should have instilled into the minds of the growing population of this country a love of Nature, a love of what God created.’[lxix]

At the same time, a balancing act had to be managed to protect native fauna while exempting from this protection fauna that agriculturalists considered destructive pests.  As a result, the First Schedule to the Act listed a number of birds that remained unprotected, including the sulphur crested cockatoo, galah, rosella, blue-bellied lorikeet and the red-rumped grass parrot.[lxx]

By 1930, fauna sanctuaries were being created around public schools, and in 1948 the concept of fauna reserves was formalized.[lxxi] The final protection of native birds in New South Wales came with the passing of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1967, amended in 1974. This Act continued the practice of exempting fauna that were considered pests, and under Schedule 11 of the Act this includes sulphur – crested cockatoos, galah, crimson rosella and the eastern rosella.[lxxii] That nonetheless we don’t eat the latter I think is due firstly to a generalization of the legislation in people’s mind. I had to chase up the specific schedule to correct my understanding that all parrots were protected, and I would bet most Australians would be in the same position.  Crooke’s cautionary note is an example of what I mean. That, and the entrenchment of the belief in the importance of the maintenance of all native species as part of an increasingly delicately balance eco-system.

Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are exceptions to this legislation, in that under Commonwealth and State fauna protection legislation they are permitted to hunt native fauna on their land for their personal consumption.[lxxiii]

All in all, Boehrer’s theory looks shaky when applied to Australia. Aboriginal peoples ate parrot, and continue to eat parrot, and to be protected by law in this behaviour, despite the over 230 years by now of missionary endeavour which ought to have communicated to them, and Australian legislators, the moral prohibition that Boehrer suggests arose as long as 500 years ago. Pioneers and later colonists ate parrot with no apparent qualms also, and the evidence is persuasive that at least cookery book writers of the late nineteenth century included recipes for parrot pie as an enticement for the emerging middle class housekeeper wanting to demonstrate her aspirations if not her position. The absence of parrot from the repertoire of Australian chefs and home cooks today is explainable by the prohibition against killing native fauna arising not out of any link to a past association with cannibalism, but within scientific discourses on the necessity for preservation of biodiversity on the one hand and aesthetic/philosophic discourses of Nature on the other hand.

Finally, it’s disappointing that Boehrer makes no comment on the continuation or otherwise of psittacophagy among the West African’s, nor does he say whether there are still indigenous American peoples who are psittacophagists in the present day. It makes for an unfortunately US/Eurocentric view of an intriguing cul de sac in gastronomy.




[i] Boehrer, The Parrot Eaters. Psittacophagy in the Renaissance and Beyond, Gatronomica Vol. 4 No. 3 46-59.

[ii] Boehrer 47-48

[iii] Boehrer 48

[iv] Schwabe, Calvin W. Unmentionable Cuisine (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996); Hopkins, Jerry Extreme Cuisine. The Weird and Wonderful Foods That People Eat (Singapore; Periplus, 2004)

[v] Hopkins  179

[vi] Davidson, Alan The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)  576

[vii] Beckett, Richard Convicted Tastes. (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1984) 54

[viii] Bannerman, Colin A Friend in the Kitchen. Old Australian Cookery Books (Kenthurst; Kangaroo Press, 1996) 245

[ix] Beckett 54. Beckett suggests that the ‘parroquets’ in question may have been Australian rosellas (Platycercus sp.). This immediately brought to mind my own confusion for many years when I would hear of Australian country women winning prizes at agricultural fairs for their rosella jam. To be honest, there was in me some eagerness to discover whether this was indeed a uniquely Australian transgressive food; the plucked, pulped and syruped meat of the day-glo red and blue feathered small parrots fond of shredding the seeds of native she-oaks. It was with a mixture of disappointment and relief that I have now found that what is jammed is the calyx of a naturalized hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffia) which has been in Australian for a good 400 years.

[x] Rawson, Mina The Antipodean Cookery Book and the Kitchen Companion 1985 Facsimile edition (Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press, 1992)

[xi] Bannerman 14

[xii] Symonds, Michael in personal email to Paul van Reyk, 1st September, 2004

[xiii] Dyson Laurel Evelyn, How to cook a galah, (Melbourne: Lothian, 2002)  118

[xiv] Fahey, Warren When Mabel Laid the Table 9Sydney: State Library of New South Wales Press, 1992) 10

[xv] Fahey 11

[xvi] Murton, Brian V.E The History and Culture of Food and Drink in Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. V.E.3 Australia and New Zealand in Kiple, Kenneth F. and Ornelas, Kriemhild Conee The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1340-1341

[xvii] Murton 1340 -1342

[xviii] Woodbury’s letter is cited from

as accessed by the author on 1st September, 2004

[xix] Thieberger, N & McGregor, W. Macquarie Aboriginal Words (Sydney: The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd., 1992  279 – 281

[xx] Flannery, Tim The Future Eaters (Sydney: Reed New Holland, 1994) 238

[xxi] Rozin, P Human Food Selection: The Interaction of Biology, Culture and Individual Experiences in Psychology of Human Food Selection L.M.Barther (ed) (Westport: AVI, 225 – 254)

[xxii] Boehrer 48

[xxiii] Thieberger & McGregor 281

[xxiv] Slater, Peter, Slater, Pat, & Slater, Raoul The Slater Field Duige to Australian Birds (Sydney: Landsdowne, 1986)  162 – 178

[xxv] Flannery, Tim The Birth of Sydney (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1999) 1

[xxvi] Flannery 98

[xxvii] Flannery 17 18

[xxviii] The Sydney Gazette, July 17, 1803. Advertisement for Mann’s Rooms at which ‘A fine real Green Turtle will be dressed on Wednesday next, and will be ready at 12 o’clock.’

[xxix] Flannery 33

[xxx] Malaspina, Alexandro in Flannery 123

[xxxi] Flannery 80

[xxxii] Haines, Robin ‘Parrot pie is very good’: immigrant diets in the nineteenth century. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of Australia Vol. 22, 1998  8

[xxxiii] Haines 7

[xxxiv] Leichhardt, Ludwig Journal of an overland expedition in Australia, from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845   First published T & W Boone, London 1847. Accessed at

[xxxv] Bannerman 12

[xxxvi] Blainey, Geoffrey Black Kettle and Full Moon (Camberwell: Penguin Australia, 2003) 200 – 2-1

[xxxvii] Blainey 202-203

[xxxviii] Clements, F.W. and Rogers, Josephine F. Early Settlers in the Colony in the Nineteenth Century in Wood, Beverley Tucker in Australia (Melbourne: Hill of Content Publishing, 1977) 47

[xxxix] Bannerman 19 – 20

[xl] Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book (London and Melbourne: Ward, Lock & Co, 1909) 192

[xli] Artusi Pellegrino La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene 1891 Trans. Kyle M Phillips III (New York: Random House, 1996) 178.

[xlii] Beckett 54

[xliii] Bannerman 59

[xliv] Mennell, Stephen All Manners of Food. Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996) 213

[xlv] Phillips xii

[xlvi] Blainey 206 – 207

[xlvii] Boehrer 48

[xlviii] Edwards, John (Trans.) The Roman Cookery of Apicius (London: Random House, 1984) 121 – 146

[xlix] Fahey 16

[l] Rawson 1895

[li] Rawson 54 – 55

[lii] Boehrer 48

[liii] See for example Rutledge, Mrs. Forster The Goulburn Cookery Book (Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co, 1913) no recipes for parrot, but 2 for pigeon and 4 for rabbit; Country Women’s Association of New South Wales The Coronation Cookery Book (Sydney; Publicity Press, 1937), no parrot but 6 recipes each for pigeon and rabbit); Australian Home Cookery (London: Hazell, Watson & Viney), no parrot but 2 for pigeon and 8 for rabbit); Heritage, L Coles’ Household Cookery (London: for E.W.Cole, Melbourne): New South Wales Public Schools Cookery Teachers’ Association The Commonsense Cookery Book (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1952), no parrots or pigeons, but 4 recipes for rabbit). This on-going presence of pigeon and rabbit is not only an Australian phenomenon. In the 1941 American Woman’s Cook Book  Ruth Berolzheimer (Ed.) (Chicago: Culinary Arts Institute) there are 3 recipes for pigeon and 6 for rabbit –  and 2 for squirrel)

[liv] Cahn, Audrey Australians in the Early Twentieth Century in Wood 55

[lv] Blainey 209

[lvi] See note xli.

[lvii] Blainey 210

[lviii] Cahn in Wood 61

[lix] Blainey 289

[lx] Blainey 293

[lxi] Blainey 295

[lxii] Crooke, Patricia (Ed.) Is Emu on the Menu? (Bairnsdale: St Anne’s and Gippsland Grammar School, 1965) 5.

[lxiii] Crooke 5

[lxiv] Stubbs, Brett J From ‘Useless Brutes’ to National Treasures: A Century of Evolving Attitudes towards Native Fauna in New South Wales, 1860s to 1960s in Environment and History 7 (2001) 23-56 (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2001). The specific dates were: Tasmania 1860, Victoria 1862, Queensland 1863, South Australia, 1864, New South Wales, 1866.

[lxv] An Act to provide for the preservation of Imported game and during the breeding season of Native Game 7th April, 1866,  29  Vic. No. 22

[lxvi] Stubbs 34

[lxvii] Stubbs 38 – 39

[lxviii] Stubbs 39

[lxix] Stubbs 41

[lxx] Birds and Animals Protection Act No 21, 1918, New South Wales Government

[lxxi] Stubbs 51

[lxxii] National Parks and Wildlife Act No 80, 1974, New South Wales Government

[lxxiii] ACIL Economics Pty Ltd  & Agriculture Western Australia  Sustainable Economic Use of

Native Australian Birds and Reptiles. Can controlled trade improve conservation of species? Summary of a report of the same name for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation RIRDC research Paper Series no 97/26 February 1997

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