Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Robin au Crouton

New York City, 

In October 1857, philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about a chance encounter with a nearby farmer who was twice his age. “…I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days.”1

In antebellum America, it was not all that unusual to eat a robin. For example, on October 28, 1858, about a year after Thoreau made this entry in his journal, robin au crouton appears as one of the entrees on this dinner menu from the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York. The robins would have been roasted on a spit over a fire in much the same way as  thrushes, or quail, were then prepared. In upper-class establishments, small birds were usually served on toast with maître d’hôtel butter, comprising butter, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Thoreau was not put off by the dead robin in Brooks Clark’s shoe, although he did think to ask the self-reliant octogenarian in what condition he found the bird. Rather, Thoreau viewed this neighborly exchange as a parable about the unselfconsciousness of old age.2 “Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store,” he continued in his journal. “Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale. This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments…It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy…If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.” 

1. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, 20 October 1857.
2. Maria Popova, http://www.brainpickings.org


Jan Whitaker said...

I think it's interesting how the number of living creatures that we consider edible has narrowed over time. (Not that I want to eat robins.)

Alison Pearlman said...

I am noticing the date printed on this fascinating menu. Was this St. Nicholas menu a special menu or was it customary for the St. Nicholas to have a daily menu? Was it unusual for restaurants in NYC at this time to have daily-changing menus?

By the way, keep up the great blog.