The Ortolan and the Omnivore: A Tale of Gluttony

France’s League for the Protection of Birds has, in recent years, been more or less successful in making French authorities toe the line on an EU ban against trapping the endangered ortolan (emberiza hortulana), a tiny bobolink-like songbird coveted by gastronomes of the French persuasion as an exquisite delicacy, all the more enticing because its taking is forbidden.

Now, we are advised by the Daily Telegraph, a cabal of grands chefs, including Alain DuCasse, is pressuring the Élysée Palace to relax the ban for one day each month.

Traditionally, ortolans are eaten with one’s head covered by a napkin because: [1.] (sensual) the exotic aroma is thereby captured, concentrated and savored, and/or, [2.] (spiritual) God cannot see you engaging in such egregious gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ortolans have often figured in the culinary history of La Belle France (cf: Mitterrand, François: Last meal of) and at least once in America as an object of the appetite of the late New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborne.

In 1975, Claiborne bid $300 at a charity auction and, having won, got his pick of a restaurant meal for two anywhere in the world, with no limit on the cost. He chose to eat — along with his friend, the chef Pierre Franey — at the Parisian establishment, Chez Denis. Their 31-course dinner took five hours to consume and included copious quantities of legendary-label wines. Claiborne wrote about the meal in The New York Times of November 14, 1975 under the title, Just a Quiet Dinner for Two in Paris: 31 Dishes, Nine Wines, a $4000 check; a paean to conspicuous consumption seldom equaled in the annals of gastronomy.

Ortolan – need I note — was a featured course.

The article ran on the Times’ front page and created an instant international sensation, the gist of which was best summed up by Pope Paul VI, who pronounced it “scandalous.” But the best (for me) was yet to come when, four days later, Times columnist Russell Baker wrote a scathing send-up of Claiborne called “Francs and Beans”. It remains to this day near the top my all time, all time list of favorite parodies.

So funny was it, that the morning I read it, I was on a breakfast flight from LaGuardia to Toronto, absorbed in the Times, as was my wont. Two sentences into Baker’s column I was laughing so hard I was choking on my croissant with tears in my eyes, much to the puzzlement of the other suits on board who were unused to seeing anyone so overcome with delight at anything in the “old gray lady”…especially at 7am..




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