Thursday, January 14, 2016

The “Reed Birds” of San Francisco

San Francisco, 

The Occidental in San Francisco was “Heaven on the half shell,” according to Mark Twain who described the daily routine at the luxury hotel in terms of its food service.1 “Here you are expected to breakfast on salmon, fried oysters and other substantials from 6 till half-past 12; you are required to lunch on cold fowl and so forth, from half-past 12 until 3; you are obliged to skirmish through a dinner comprising such edibles as the world produces, and keep it up, from 3 until half-past 7; you are then compelled to lay siege to the tea-table from half-past 7 until 9 o’clock, at which hour…(you) move upon the supper works and destroy oysters gotten up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock.” Indeed, a menu from about 1881 shows the restaurant at the hotel served three types of oysters.2 The price for a plate of California oysters was 25 cents, those from the East Coast were 50 cents, and the ones “transplanted” for growth and conditioning cost 37½ cents, precisely positioned in the middle. Another interesting item on this menu is a game dish called reed birds. Unlike the oysters, they are not indigenous to the region, nor were they transported across the country by rail. 

A wide variety of small birds were then sold in the city’s markets as “reed birds,” employing the common name for bobolinks, even though the habitat of this songbird extends no further west than the tall grasslands of the continent’s prairies. The misnomer bestowed an epicurean distinction on species decidedly less tasty. Nevertheless, they were served often enough to merit a permanent place in the menu’s game section where price and availability varied with the season. In 1891, as market hunting became increasingly harmful to native bird populations in the Bay Area, a biological journal revealed the details of this trade: 

“For an infinite number of years there have been exposed for sale in the markets of San Francisco, primarily during the summer, small California birds, picked, and six of them side by side with a skewer running trough them. The entire birds, although picked and drawn, requires no more than a passing glance to determine to what one of the several species it belongs, for the ‘reed birds’ of San Francisco, it is almost needless to say, is not a true reed bird or rice bird of the Atlantic Coast which is presumably the bobolink…I have made a practice never to pass a stall where so-called ‘reed birds’ are offered for sale without stopping and noting the species, or at least the genus to which they belonged, and have been surprised to find to what extent harmless if not positively beneficial birds are slaughtered that the scant morsel on flesh on either side of the keel of the breast-bone may be served as an entrée in the better class of San Francisco restaurants. 

“Generally speaking, the San Francisco ‘reed bird’ is a horned lark, known to the market men and pot-hunters who furnish them as ‘bean birds,’ the flesh of which is rather light-colored, tender, and the birds are often fat…Among the (other) species destroyed by pot-hunters are several species of sparrows; house finches are notable victims, and occasionally goldfinches belonging to two or three species have been seen in one lot with birds as large as blackbirds which represent the maximum size of a ‘reed bird,’ while goldfinches are as small as any that have yet been sold…More rarely sandpipers are resorted to in order to supply the markets with ‘reed birds,’ but the dealers say that ‘sandpeeps’ are ‘too strong’ and do not give satisfaction to their patrons. 

“The prices at which these birds sell are from twenty-five to fifty cents a ‘stick’ in the markets, being at the rate of fifty cents to a dollar a dozen, although I have known them as low as thirty-five cents a dozen. They rarely exceed a dollar. The demand for them is not very great, yet (in summer) the daily sales in San Francisco probably range from one to two dozen a day to ten dozen or more. 

“About two or three are served to one person, sometimes more, according to supply and price and the standing of the restaurant. The annual destruction must amount to many thousands and has only the extenuation on its side of being carried on most extensively when the birds are not breeding but congregated in more or less mixed flocks in open fields, or along roadsides or patches of chaparral…The principal collecting grounds are the suburbs of San Francisco, along the railroad line in San Mateo County, and in the vicinity of Berkeley. One party informed me that many of the birds were taken by netting. 

“The tendency of this phase of bird destruction is to steadily increase in severity, and it has long since arrived at that stage of importance which should bring notice to the authorities interested in bird protection…”3

In the 1890s, market hunting took a large toll on avian populations, including birds like robins that we no longer think of as food. Birds in the United States were also severely threatened by the fashion industry which was responsible for the mass slaughter of about five million birds annually. Some species had been hunted to extinction by the turn of the century when new game laws began to be enacted and warden forces established. 

1. “Mark Twain” in the Metropolis,” Territorial Enterprise, June 17-23, 1864. Reprinted in The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 2 1864-1865, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 10-12. 
2. The restaurant and bar at the Occidental were informal meeting places for politicians and businessmen. Pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas claimed to have invented the martini there, although the above menu shows no evidence of it and other origins have been suggested. James R. Smith, San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks, 2005. 
3. Walter E. Bryant, “The ‘Reed Birds’ of the San Francisco Markets,” Zoe Publishing Co., San Diego, July 1891. I want to thank Erica Peters for sharing this article and her extensive knowledge of the historic foodways of San Francisco.

1 comment:

Deana Sidney said...

Thanks for your kind words, Henry. Lovely article as always. Poor tiny birds. We really are like locusts. Without some intervention,the free market would suck everything up. Beautiful menus too...