Americans Used to Eat Robin Pie and Calf’s Foot Jelly

A food historian points out some forgotten favorites

In the 19th century this pie might have contained birds pixel1 via pixabay (Public Domain)

The history of food is full of stories and facts that run counter to modern day culinary experiences: For example, the Italians once thought coffee was Satanic and pork-eating was common in the Middle East up until around 1,000 B.C. For NPR, reporter Linton Weeks spoke to food historian Sandra L. Oliver about American’s surprising past food habits.

In the 19th century, Weeks discovers, dishes including boiled eels, calf’s foot jelly, stewed terrapin and robin pie graced tables. Here's a historical recipe for each of the afore-mentioned dishes, robin pie:

...a recipe from Wehman's Cook Book, published in 1890: "Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins, previously rolled in flour, stuffed as above, season with a teaspoonful of salt, a quarter ditto of pepper, one of chopped parsley, and one of chopped eschalots, lay a bay-leaf over, add a gill of broth, and cover with three quarters of a pound of half puff taste, bake one hour in a moderate oven, shake well to make the gravy in the pie form a kind of sauce, and serve quite hot."

Weeks also includes details about the other three dishes (terrapin or mud turtle was an "acquired taste") over at NPR. And Oliver, author of several books on historical foods, has even more forgotten ways of eating at her website, Food History News. She also debunks some common myths about food lore and offers up the truth about lobsters and the use of spices to cover the taste of rotting meat. 

Oliver also urges modern readers not to condemn the eating habits of the past, or even think of them as particularly strange. "You are safer not talking 'strange' but rather, perhaps, neglected or abandoned eating habits," she tells NPR. After all, some trends today (she mentions colorful breakfast cereals as an example) may wrinkle noses in the future. Plus, gelatinous by-products of cow ligaments and other animal parts continue to show up in some surprising places.

However, there’s a good reason not to eat robin pie today — the birds, like many other small backyard avian species, are protected under the Migratory Bird Act. But there’s no excuse for the other dishes falling out of favor, other than that of changing tastes.

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