The Vanquished Banquet: Broiled Rice Birds

Written By David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


South Carolina rice planters looked upon the rice bird with mixed emotions. The cloud-like flocks of black song birds feasted upon the rice fields, fattening for their long migration to central South Amer- ica. They could strip fields bare. But they also ranked among the tastiest birds — up with the canvasback duck — served on the American table. So the southern remedy to the Rice Bird was the shot gun. Hundreds of thousands were gunned from the sky over southern ricelands up until 1911. But the rice bird — or bobolink — did not suffer population decline until the hay fields of America, their ideal nesting sites, were converted to alfalfa, as the horse was supplanted by the tractor in agricultural America.

Today the bobolink is protected in the United States. But in Jamaica, where the are called butter birds, they are still shot and consumed, and farmers in Argentina, where the rice birds winter, find them as much as a nuisance as rice planters did in the 19th century. With the return of rice planting to South Carolina, the rice bird has also reappeared.

By some uncanny instinct they find the fields, and like their ancestors of old, gobble the grain. As an endangered species, South Carolinians are not supposed to shoot and consume them. Yet the bobolink population is on the rise, and there may come a day when we can once again savor the two dishes that graced the traditional southern table: broiled rice birds and rice bird pie.

A southern gourmet provides an enthusiast commentary of both dishes in an 1858 contribution to the greatest of antebellum American sporting periodicals, The Spirit of the Times:

They put up at several nom de plumes — rice bird, bobolink, reed-bird, rice-bunting, and last, although not least conspicuous, in their European guise ortolan is much admired and sought after for the delicacy of the flesh. They are served in several styles, a la cuisine, in the most notable restaurants; however different may be the methods of treating their rich, fat bodies, in the cooking and dressing, they always please the exquisite taste and palate of the gastro- nomist. Yet I know no better mode of cooking and dressing them than to place them in rows strung above a moderate fire, and under them a dripping pan well supplied with pieces of toasted bread, to received the rich and luscious drippings, that will exude from them. Allow them to cook thus gently, occasionally turning, so as not to have them over-roasted, as to one’s taste determine the portion of salt and black pepper should be put into each bird. They also afford an excellent pie, by the addition of a half-pint of rice, boiled, half pint of milk, add the yolks of two eggs, then place the birds, seasoned with all the usual spices, into the pie-pan; let it bake slowly until perfectly done. Oh! Ye Gods! What a pie! What a dish!

The Spirit of the Times 29, 36 (October 15, 1859), 425.