“I’d like a little bird,” I tell the man at the Camberwell Green Market. “There’s just two of us eating it.” He’s standing behind a table littered with quails and pheasants and ?pigeons, and sausages made of alternative animals, such as venison.
“I’ve never cooked any bird beyond chickens & turkeys,” I confess. “And I’m not great at turkey.”
“Pheasant!” He seems sure about this. “Rub it down with loads of butter and cover the breast ridge with bacon or a strip of kitchen foil. Then just pop it in the oven at 190 for an hour and a quarter.” He chirps on for a few minutes with the enthusiasm of a lonely market man on a slow, rainy Saturday morning.
I balance my umbrella to pay for the bird. Market Man repeats the instructions a few more times, ignoring another customer clearly trying to get his attention.
“Tell me how you get on!” he calls after me.
For the next several days I build up anticipation for the experiment. “What are you doing for Christmas?” a work colleague asks at the office Christmas party.
“Oh, I’m roasting a pheasant,” I say with the casual offhandedness of one who’s roasted many a game fowl. Swirling Merlot in my wine glass, I add, “With chutney, you know.”
Christmas mid-day, I can barely contain my excitement as I unwrap the fowl. I glance over Market Man’s instructions and hum a little Christmas tune.
Something isn’t right.
There are tiny, black, prickly things jutting out from the bird. Why didn’t I notice this at the market? Is the bird defective? I call in Sal for a second opinion.
We lift a tiny leg – it’s covered in them. “Feathers!” I gasp. Sal leaves me to pluck the black hairy bits, muttering as I do.
“This is a little too natural, maybe.”
Glob of butter in hand, I reach in the small hollow of the bird – something red and gleamy comes out. “They left the guts inside!” I call to Sal, who makes a sympathetic noise from the living room. They’re tiny. Pheasant guts. So tiny and strange, I’m not sure I got them all, but I am past caring. I cover the breast lovingly with a sliver of foil and pop it in the oven.
Cooked, the pheasant is even smaller. One doesn’t really ‘carve’ a pheasant, though I try. It looks like a crime scene when I’m done sawing all the odd, stringy meat from those intricate, wily bones. Finally, we sit down to feast on our bird for two (with chutney, of course).
“What do you think?” I ask Sal anxiously.
“It’s – what’s this?” He spits something into his hand and holds it up. “That’s a buckshot.”
Sal finds not one, not two, but three tiny bullets in his dinner.
“Wow,” I say, shaking my head, “This is really, really organic.”
Later, I relay The Pheasant Experiment to my dad over the phone. He’s sitting by his cookstove, drinking a cup of pressure cooker coffee.
“Pheasant, huh? They good eatin’?” He asks. His voice is hoarse and crackly from tobacco smoke and cold mountain air.
“It was kinda sweet. I don’t know. I guess.”
“That’s a game bird, I reckon. I’ve had quail. But you gotta eat three or four of them just to get any meat.”