Tag Archives: Michael Walkden

Eating Crow

By Michael Walkden

In 1936, the residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma were seized with a craving for crow. Butchers sent children into the fields, offering $1.50 for every dozen crows they brought back for the chopping block. Nurses and dietitians suggested that crow-meat could become a staple food in hospitals. And Miss Maude Firth, a domestic science teacher, established a class in crow-cookery. [1]

Tulsa’s crow craze was due in no small part to the efforts of one Dr. T. W. Stallings, former county health superintendent and self-professed “crow hater.” According to Stallings, crows – with their tendency to descend in droves upon staple crops – had become a serious problem for Oklahoma farmers in recent years.

With this in mind, Stallings launched a pragmatic attempt to stimulate interest in the extermination and consumption of crow, beginning with a series of ‘crow banquets.’ Only after the guests had finished their meals – and expressed their approval – was it revealed that they had dined on crow.

It appears that Stallings’ campaign to turn crow-meat into an American table delicacy enjoyed a degree of success. In February 1936, The Atlanta Constitution reported that a group of state officials, including Oklahoma Governor E. W. Marland, were to attend a banquet at which the piece de resistance would be “50 fine, fat crows.” [2] Marland was apparently so impressed by the meal that he established a “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers Association.” [3]

The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and its relatives have generally been shunned as foodstuffs in Western cultures due to their omnivorous diets, which often include carrion

Crow-eating was by no means limited to Oklahoma: by 1937, newspapers in Kansas, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington state were all reporting a surge of public interest in the much-maligned bird. In August 1937, it was estimated that an average of two Americans per day wrote to the Department of Agriculture asking for details on “how crows might be cooked, stewed, fried or roasted and how crow broth can be made.” [4] And in 1941, a group of sportsmen enjoyed “crow en casserole” courtesy of Fernand Pointreau, head chef at the acclaimed Hotel Sherman in Chicago. The crows were prepared as follows:

First they were skinned and dressed and put in a pan with butter to which a small amount of garlic had been added. Then the pan was drenched with one-third of a cup of white wine. Strong veal gravy [three tablespoons] and soy bean sauce were added. This sauce was poured over the crow meat and then the birds were cooked in a covered dish for about two hours. [Very young birds taken in the spring require just one hour, according to Chef Pointreau.] Mushrooms, small cubes of fried salt pork, and small glazed onions were added.

Those who sampled Pointreau’s creation were overwhelmingly positive. One diner remarked that he had been “agreeably surprised at the taste of crow,” noting that it “compares favorably with wild duck;” another described it as “A very tasty dark meat, deliciously prepared.” [5]

We should, of course, be wary of taking the ‘crow craze’ of the 1930s and 40s at face value. As we have seen, state officials had a vested interest in promoting the extermination of the birds, which were widely views as destructive pests. The 1930s also saw widespread dearth in the parts of the United States hit hardest by the ravages of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, a fact which could have rendered the crow – not traditionally considered a source of food – more appetising than it had previously appeared.

Despite this, it is also clear that many people were clearly sceptical or downright disgusted at the idea of eating crow. “Roast crow, bah,” exclaimed one Atlanta chef in 1936, “folks just don’t go in for that kind of meat. … So far as I’m concerned, eating crow will continue to be nothing but a political expression.” [6] A writer for the US Department of Agriculture in 1937 similarly declared that “I have eaten rattlesnake, but I have never eaten crow. And I don’t think I ever intend.” [7]

There is little evidence that the efforts made in the 1930s had any lasting impact on the public perception of crow-meat as a foul-tasting or even toxic substance: ‘eating crow’ in modern parlance remains a term for the unpleasant experience of being forced to retract a strongly expressed conviction.

E. W. Marland, 10th Governor of Oklahoma, was apparently so impressed by his own experience of eating crow that he set up an unofficial “Statehouse Crow Meat Lovers’ Association.”

Nonetheless, this brief chapter in the history of food is as an example of what happens when the pragmatic concerns of nutrition run up against shared convictions that certain substances are unfit for human consumption. As Paul Rozin and April Fallon have observed in a much-cited paper on the psychology of disgust:

Whereas people readily acquire disgust responses to substances, especially during the enculturation process, they rarely lose them. This presents a problem in public health, when members of a particular culture reject a nutritive, cheap, and plentiful foodstuff (e.g., fish flour, a fermented item, a particular animal species).[8]

The 1930s crow craze therefore raises several important questions about the parameters of edibility. What factors shape whether an edible substance produces a disgust response? Are these fixed or culturally variable? And how far can they be overridden or reshaped in times of famine or changing public health priorities?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it appears that Stallings greatly underestimated the resistance that his project to rehabilitate the culinary status of crow would ultimately face. “There is no reason why crow shouldn’t be good food,” he declared optimistically in 1936. “It’s just a silly idea that they aren’t good to eat. [9] And yet, almost a century on, while crows continue to darken the skies, they remain notably absent from American dinner tables.


Michael Walkden recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of York, UK. His thesis explored the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He will shortly be joining the Folger Shakespeare Library as a postdoctoral research fellow on the “Before ‘Farm to Table:’ Early Modern Foodways and Cultures” research project.


[1] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[2] “Oklahoma’s Governor To Eat Crow Tomorrow,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 17, 1936.

[3] “Bids Legislature to Crow Meal,” New York Times, December 3, 1936.

[4] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[5] Bob Becker, “SPORTSMEN EAT CROW MEAT AND FIND IT TASTY: Compare Flavor to That of Game Birds, Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1941.

[6] “Atlanta Gourmets Scoff at Crow As Substitute for Fried Chicken,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

[7] “Biologists Get 2 Queries a Day On Methods of Cooking Crows,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1937.

[8] Paul Rozin and April E. Fallon, “A perspective on disgust,” Psychological review 94, no. 1 (1987): 38.

[9] “Tulsa enthusiastic over crow as delicacy,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 14, 1936.

“Bonny-Clabber Physicians”: Eating Clean in the Seventeenth Century

Michael Walkden

NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.
NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.

The concept of ‘clean eating’ is nothing new, but ideas about what constitutes ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ food have varied within and across cultures. In the later seventeenth century, the popular health writer Thomas Tryon promoted a “radically clean” vegetarian diet as a route to longevity and clarity of mind. However, Tryon’s meat-free menu was rather different from the quinoa bowls and kale smoothies of modern-day clean-eaters. His 1694 Pocket-companion contains the following recipe (easy to follow, but emphatically not to be tried at home):

Boniclabber is made by letting your Milk stand till it sowers, which will be in Twenty-fours hours, if the weather be very hot. [1]

Tryon’s ‘bonny clabber’ – an Irish country dish that was later enjoyed by immigrants to the USA – would have great difficulty in meeting twenty-first century Western standards of food hygiene. Writing well before the advent of pasteurization, Tryon would likely have used raw milk straight from the cow, which would have been rich in bacteria that could be both beneficial and harmful to the human body. If it was left at just the right temperature and for the appropriate length of time, the finished product would be a thick, fermented milk, similar to yoghurt or kefir.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of Tryon’s contemporaries shared his enthusiasm. Gideon Harvey wrote that “Bonny-Clabber Physicians” routinely endangered their patients by their over-use of milk products, which he viewed as highly corruptible and prone to curdling in the belly. [2] Harvey had the weight of medical tradition on his side. Humoural physicians since Hippocrates frequently expressed mistrust or even fear over the coagulability of milk, with Galen writing that it “turns to wind in the stomachs of most people, and there are very few who avoid this.” [3]

Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.
Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.

Tryon attempted to forestall this sort of criticism in his own writing. Since he believed that digestion operated by a process of fermentation, it logically followed that fermented foods should be easier on the stomach, having already undergone the initial stages of this process. While he was prepared to admit that it “may not be so agreeable to the Pallat at first”, Tryon assured his readers that “a little Custom will make it familiar and pleasant.” [4]

Attitudes towards the healthiness of clabber were also closely tied up with racial stereotypes about the Irish, whose perceived gluttony and barbarism were ridiculed by many English Protestants. In 1652 the parliamentarian Samuel Sheppard wrote of an anonymous royalist that “his Intellect is as foule, as an Irish Firkin of Bonny Clabber”, suggesting that many viewed it as a disgusting or dangerous substance. [5] By contrast, in a 1635 letter from Dublin, the English royalist and Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth described clabber as “the bravest freshest Drink you ever tasted.” [6]

The example of bonny clabber raises some interesting questions about the relationship between ideology and diet. As Carla Cevasco has flagged up elsewhere on this blog, the categories that shape affective responses to food can be highly variable, ranging from the genetic makeup of a population to its social norms. Disgust that feels instinctive or biologically hard-wired might just as easily be the product of a specific cultural moment. As the debate over clean eating continues to rage, we need to pay closer attention to the ideological fault-lines upon which we construct our ideas about food and hygiene.

[1] Thomas Tryon, A pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness (London: Printed for George Conyers, 1693), 6.

[2] Gideon Harvey, The art of curing diseases by expectation (London: Printed for James Partridge, 1689), 38.

[3] Galen, Galen on Food and Diet, ed. Mark Grant (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 165. See also Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 19-30.

[4] Tryon, Pocket-companion, 7.

[5] Samuel Sheppard, The vveepers: or, the bed of snakes broken (London: Printed for Thomas Bucknell, 1652), 6.

[6] Thomas Wentworth, The Earl of Strafforde’s Letters and Dispatches, Volume 1, ed. William Knowler (London: Printed for the editor, by William Bowyer, 1739), 441.

Michael Walkden is currently completing his doctoral thesis in History at the University of York, UK. His research explores understandings of the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He is particularly interested in the intersection of diet, health and spirituality in the seventeenth century.