Why Don’t We Eat Swans Anymore?
A roast swan stuffed with mushrooms and oysters. Slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches, too rich even for royal taste buds. Each night the lords and ladies of "A Song of Ice and Fire" dine on the finest, most fantastical foods that author George R. R. Martin can imagine, but the swan, resplendent in its white plumage, is a dish rooted in real history.
Once reserved for royalty — Tudor, not Targaryen — swans have been a taboo food for hundreds of years, thanks in large part to their perceived rarity and beauty. Over the past few decades, however, their numbers have swelled to the thousands in places like Michigan and New York, where the birds are called “destructive” and “invasive.”
Swans have been a taboo food for hundreds of years, thanks in large part to their perceived rarity and beauty. Over the past few decades, however, their numbers have swelled to the thousands in places like Michigan and New York, where the birds are called ‘destructive’ and ‘invasive.’
Various solutions have been proposed, but with one glaring exception: The legalized hunting and yes, eating, of swans. Swans are a bird, after all, no different than ducks and quite similar to a Christmas goose. We eat lambs with little cultural objection and with the “Game of Thrones” TV series stirring interests in medieval cookery, it is not impossible that adventurous eaters might like to give it a try.
Often served at feasts, roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce; others preferred to stuff the bird with a series of increasingly smaller birds, in the style of a turducken. Swans have been the property of the Crown since around the twelfth century, but Edward IV’s Act Concerning Swans in 1482 clearly defined that ownership. To this day, Queen Elizabeth II participates in the yearly Swan Upping, in which the royal Swan Master counts and marks swans on the Thames, and the kidnapping and eating of swans can be considered a treasonous crime. Great Britain’s royals are still allowed to eat swan, as are the fellows of St. John’s College of Cambridge, but to the best of our knowledge, they no longer do. Thanks to stories like Leda and the Swan and Lohengrin, the birds appear almost mythical; a restaurant on the Baltic island of Ruegen had swan on their menu for a short time, before protests began and it was swiftly removed.
In Michigan, however, which has the highest population of mute swans in North America, the creatures are considered pests. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the statewide breeding population increased from about 5,700 to more than 15,000 in just ten years. The birds attack people in the water and on shore, particularly children that wander too close to their nests.
In Michigan, mute swans threaten other native birds, such as common loons, black terns, and trumpeter swans, and are also destroying the wetlands where they live. The DNR has set a controversial plan to reduce the population to less than 2,000 by 2030 that involves issuing permits to remove mute swans and their nests from approved properties; a hunting season is not under consideration.
Regulated hunting, however, might gain approval from chefs like Mario Batali, whose friends in Michigan have hunted the birds before. “We once ate a swan at Christmas nine or ten years ago,” he told Esquire. “It was delicious — deep red, lean, lightly gamey, moist, and succulent… but I’ve never seen swan on a market list.”
Swan is not an animal that is hunted and besides it has the ‘cute’ factor going for it. I cannot imagine it on my menu.
“Nobody has ever requested swan,” says Mark Lahm, chef and owner of Henry’s End in Brooklyn. Lahm’s restaurant is one of the few in New York to focus on wild game and has claimed to serve every meat imaginable: bear, turtle, kangaroo—everything, except swan. “Swan is not an animal that is hunted and besides it has the ‘cute’ factor going for it,” Lahm says. “I cannot imagine it on my menu.”
The cultural reluctance to hunt swan (let alone eat it) is powerful, but the government’s desire to control overpopulation is equally strong. Michigan’s population reduction goals have even gained support from conservation groups like the National Audubon Society. Other states, like New York, may turn to more drastic measures. In January, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation proposed to eliminate all of the 2,200 free-ranging mute swans by 2025. The plan was met, of course, with outrage, and the department agreed that it would consider nonlethal means to control the mute swan population.
Few protesters were able to suggest an effective, alternative solution, but when the choice is between the carnage of the mass murder of New York’s swans and regulated hunting, the Lannisters and their roast swan dinners start to sound almost reasonable.