From Here to China, People Are Still Eating Rare Animals—but Why?

Deeply entrenched cultural practices and the allure of the illicit keep threatened species on the menu.

A chef holds the head of a bluefin tuna at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo on Jan. 5, 2012. (Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Apr 29, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

To prepare one of the most notorious dishes in French cuisine, you start by locking a small, live songbird in a darkened box with a large amount of millet. Closed away from the light, the bird eats constantly, fattening its spindly body in a matter of days. After being gorged, the bird is drowned in a shot of Armagnac, plucked of its feathers, and roasted whole—guts and all. The ortolan, a type of bunting, is served straight from the oven, and diners typically eat it with a napkin tented over their head. Some say this odd tradition is designed to keep the fleeting aromas of the small birds, which are said to taste of foie gras and truffles, from escaping too quickly. Others say the cloth is to shield the diner’s greed (or shame, depending on who’s recounting the myth) from God as they crunch down on the endangered songbird.

Whether or not the napkin is a sufficient defense against the prying eyes of God is subject to debate. However, symbolically speaking, the ceremonial hood has helped hide the long-standing culinary tradition from France’s government. Ortolan are listed as a threatened species per the European Union, and it has been illegal to hunt or sell the birds since 1987. Enforcement of the law was so lax for decades, however, that the government had to announce that it would start imposing its own restrictions in 2007.

“The small birds, which dine on berries through their brief lives, are cooked whole, with the head on, and without cleaning except for removing the feathers,” Craig Claiborne, the influential New York Times food critic, wrote about ortolan in 1975. “They are as fat as butter and an absolute joy to bite into because of the succulence of the flesh. Even the bones, except for the tiny leg bones, are chewed and swallowed. There is one bird to one bite.”

American gourmands like Claiborne have eaten their fair share of the songbird, but the man who is most strongly associated with dining on ortolan is François Mitterrand, the former French president. Just days before he died of prostate cancer in 1996, he gathered with friends for a famous last meal that featured the bird among other delicacies.

The transgression of Mitterrand’s last supper, during which the dying former president consumed what’s romantically considered the soul of France, presents such a heady mix of seduction and compulsion that it has not only been recounted in a book but was depicted in a movie too. Those buntings he chewed through under the private cover of a white napkin, alone in his momentary pleasure so near to death, are surely the most famous specimens to have ever been eaten.

“And there’s a lot of contemplation that goes underneath that cloth napkin. It's like sort of being in a confessional,” Michael Paterniti, who re-created Mitterrand’s last meal, including the illicit songbirds, for a 1998 Esquire story, told NPR in 2006. “You have to own up to your own mortality. And I think that’s what François Mitterrand was most attracted to, trying to achieve some immortal gesture. He felt that this bird was the perfect ending of his life.”

The political ironies of a Socialist president ending a life of eating with such a bourgeois meal—the menu also included oysters and foie gras—are somewhat glossed over by Mitterrand’s strong connection to the southwest of France, where both he and many of these dishes originated. But a somewhat similar political ideology has helped push delicacies like shark fin soup off Communist Party banquet tables in China. Last December, Xinhua, the state news agency, announced that a ban on shark fin, bird’s nest, and other wild animal products at state dinners was intended “to regulate the use of public funding on receptions by local authorities to receive visiting Party or government officials.” In other words, consuming these incredibly expensive delicacies was too capitalistic for the People’s Party to continue to endorse.

Now, under a new law passed in China, 420 rare or endangered species, including pangolins and giant pandas, will be illegal to eat in that country. Unlike France’s lazy bunting ban, offenses will be punishable by three to 10 years behind bars. It used to be that it was illegal to take part in the trade of these animals, but diners were off the hook. Kill an Asiatic black bear; go to jail. Eat a red-braised bear paw killed by someone else and cooked in the Hunan style of stewing beloved by Chairman Mao, and you could go home satisfied and scot-free.

I wouldn’t wish time in a Chinese prison on anyone, even if the person managed to get past the moral alarms that surely must blare when one is presented with a plate of panda bear, but it does seem that cutting off demand for these ecologically damaging foods is the only way to curb their appeal. In a recent Los Angeles Times review of the sushi bar Q, Jonathan Gold wrote about a series of courses that featured cuts of bluefin tuna. While he described the slices of maguro, chu-toro, and o-toro as “spectacular,” he regretted not stipulating that he didn’t want to eat the increasingly endangered fish.

“There is no excuse for a chef like Naruke to serve bluefin tuna, a species hurtling toward extinction,” he wrote, “and I am furious with myself for not sending it back.” Slipping a piece of sushi into your mouth—a single, simple bite—is less involved than the ceremony of ortolan. But the point is that once the bird or the bluefin or the bear paw is in front of you, it’s often too late to say no.

Chinese cooking has long played outside the boundaries of chicken, beef, and pork, but the booming economy of recent years has increased the desire for dinner menus that read like the Endangered Species Act. Rhino and elephant populations are continuing to drop because of the demand for horns and tusks; as many as 100 million sharks have been killed in a year for their fins. Asiatic black bears have been hunted to near extinction in South Korea and are threatened throughout their range, and ortolan have the sad distinction of being one of the fastest-declining bird species in Europe.

Before you go bothering those crazy Asians and gluttonous French, reprimanding their amoral appetite for threatened species, remember that America’s appetite for sushi has contributed to a 96 percent drop in Pacific bluefin tuna stocks. The Internet may not trade in cute videos of pelagic fish rummaging through dumpsters and eating garage freezers full of meatballs, but the demise of a menacing-looking fish is just as tragic as that of a cute, fuzzy bear or any other animal.

Gold may be angry with himself for eating those pieces of red, raw tuna. But despite years of strong words about eating bluefin, it seems he still can’t bring himself to say no. And he’s not alone. As someone who has guiltily eaten bluefin—which is indeed delicious—on a handful of occasions, I understand that saying no to the fish can seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

At a sushi bar like Q, bluefin is presented as a delicacy, as the apex of a cuisine and culture that, with centuries of tradition behind it, is hard-pressed to grapple with the ecological realities of 2014. Skillfully carved and gone in just one bite, a piece of bluefin is a dining experience that’s far too easy to disassociate from the global collapse of a species that can weigh in at more than 500 pounds. As long as it’s there, and as long as it’s that simple to fulfill the desire to know what it tastes like, diners will continue to eat bluefin, to eat bear, to eat a bunting.

Fuchsia Dunlop, who has written extensively about China and Chinese food, has joked that she’s eaten “far too much meat from endangered species.” But despite any transgressions she’s committed at the dinner table, Dunlop has raised some interesting, difficult questions about the immediate condemnation with which people respond to reports of endangered animals being poached, trafficked, and eaten. Writing about China’s hunger for bear paw in 2009, which she has never encountered in her travels, Dunlop says that she would turn it down should it be presented to her—but it’s not quite as simple as saying no.

“And yet I can’t help wondering if eating such things, gross and unconscionable though it may be, is any worse than driving a car, travelling by plane, using consumer goods whose manufacture and disposal causes catastrophic pollution, or eating a lot of factory-farmed meat,” she continues. “It’s much easier to make a moral point by refusing bear’s paw (particularly if it’s not part of your own culture) than it is to address seriously the impact of our consumerist lifestyles on the planet and its biodiversity, isn’t it?”

Food has intersected with French presidential identity politics in the years since Mitterrand’s death, as is to be expected in a country where food and identity are so intertwined. Charles de Gaulle once famously quipped, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” There were Freedom Fries in the Chirac years, hot dogs and burgers with the Bush family in the Sarkozy years. But no mythic meals of ortolan.

Despite the now actively enforced law against capturing and selling the birds, the culinary promise of ortolan still persists. Around 30,000 birds are trapped in southwest France every year—though some conservation groups say the number is closer to 100,000. In an AFP story from last year, Jean-Roland Barrère, president of the Landes Federation of Hunters, suggested his own plan for slowly limiting the hunt: Just let the old men who take part in the tradition die off.

“That is, as the hunters pass on, the role of hunter disappears, and little by little the practice dies out,” he said. But will the appetite for the soul of France die out too?