The mislabeling of food was a conventional practice in the nineteenth century when imagination often trumped scruples in the supply chain. While menus may not provide evidence of the most egregious misdeeds, they sometimes indicate puffery, such as when a game bird appears to have been given the name of a fancier species. For example, small rails from the swampy marshes of the Mid-Atlantic might be called ortolans, the European buntings beloved by gourmets in France. Claims of this type were probably not intended to fool the diner so much as to give the occasion a more sophisticated air. However, game birds may have also been mislabeled, or simply left off the menu, when they were served out of season. For a better understanding of this illicit practice, we turn to an investigative article about one such incident. Although I have not yet found a menu to support this report, ephemera tells us something about the restaurant implicated in the story.1
In May 1882, Forest and Stream magazine revealed that out-of-season snow buntings were being sold on the streets of New York as “reed birds,” then the common name for bobolinks.2 The misdemeanor had been observed earlier that month by a journalist from Philadelphia. Interestingly, the street vendor claimed that restaurateur James Purssell had purchased a large quantity of the illegal birds. Situated on Broadway in the fashionable shopping district near Madison Square, Purssell’s was a restaurant, bakery, and confectionery that catered to women in high society.3 The article is reproduced in part below, along with two trade cards touting the upper-class establishment’s “English specialties” and catering services.
“I observed a game vendor on Broadway, near 22nd street, with an immense quantity of plucked birds of some sort strung in dozens, offering them to passers-by. Not knowing the species of small bird he had without a closer examination, as all the feathers were off of them excepting those of the head and tail, and noticing that they were very fat, your correspondent, put on the air of an uninitiated one, that he might more readily satisfy his curiosity as to their kind, and accosted the game hawker as follows: ‘What sort of birds are those you are selling, my man?’ ‘Reed birds, sir,’ he replied, naming the price. ‘Why, how is that?’ said I, ‘do you have reed birds in New York?’ ‘Oh, yes, we often have them for sale; they came from Philadelphia.’
“By this time I had examined the birds and found them to be snow buntings. ‘Are you sure they are reed birds?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I am sure; they came from Philadelphia this morning, and I have just sold Purcell (sic), below here, twenty dozen.’ I then opened on him, and told him whom he was trying to fool and showed him very plainly that reed birds at this time of year (May 1) had not reached Pennsylvania or New York from the south… I made use of very plain language before I left the man, and told him the sale of such birds as he had in the spring would not be allowed in Philadelphia even in autumn.
“I have since heard that a very large quantity of these ‘reed birds’ were shipped to New York last week from the north, and learned that families were buying them as reed birds. The sale of these, if I am not mistaken, is in direct violation of New York law, and I must say I was astonished to see them vended so openly on the city’s most frequented thoroughfare.
“We Philadelphians do not claim to have stopped entirely the illegitimate sale of game or harmless birds, but our boldest hawker would not have dared to display such a string of ‘reed birds’ on the street in Philadelphia, and I can say he would not have gone many blocks without having been arrested.
“Of what use are game protective associations or game laws if such open violations are allowed? So long as leading restaurants make it an object for pot-hunters to kill game out season and to procure for them birds they can palm off to their customers as ‘reed birds,’ we may look for a continuance of a violation of the law. It should be made a finable offense for such to be found either on the bill of fare of any hotel or restaurant, or if obtainable sub rosa, to be in like manner subject to penalty. This furnishing on the sly of out of season game was tried in Philadelphia by restaurateurs, but unfortunately for the latter on three or four occasions it was placed before a paid detective of the Philadelphia Sportsman's Club, and the proper fine was demanded and paid. Two or three cases of this kind (in New York) would have a very salutary effect…”
In the summer of 1890, a prominent sportsman dining at Delmonico’s overheard a neighboring table order woodcock. Since it was against the law to sell this woodland bird from February 1 to August 31, he reported the incident to the game authorities who subsequently brought legal proceedings against the famed restaurant. At first, owner Charles Delmonico issued a general denial, intimating that the birds were English snipe which he could legally serve at that time of year. He also stated that it was his duty as a restaurateur to serve his customers whatever they wanted regardless of the season. Nevertheless, Delmonico dropped his defense and paid the fine in April 1893 when he learned that the state had built a strong case against him. The strict enforcement of game laws came too late for species like the Eskimo curlew once favored by American epicures. Despite having been one of the most numerous shorebirds in North America, it had already been hunted to extinction.
1. “Selling Snow Buntings for Reed Birds (Bobolinks),” Forest and Stream, 18(15): 287 (11 May 1882). I want to thank Dr. Robert DeCandido, known as Birding Bob in Central Park, for sending me this article.
2. The snow bunting is a small songbird with white plumage that lives in the high Arctic and snowy winter fields. The bobolink, a small songbird commonly called a “reed bird” because it perches on a grass stem, migrates to and from southern South America each year. Ironically, this species had not yet arrived in North America in early May when they were supposedly being sold on the streets of New York.
3. In 1886, Purssell’s at 910 Broadway went bankrupt and the contents of this location were sold at auction. James Purssell opened other eponymous restaurants in partnership with his creditors.