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Pigeon: Both Pest And Delicacy In Cairo And Beyond

This is the last bite of the food portion of NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep's Revolutionary Road trip from Tunisia to Cairo, in which Steve arrives in Cairo and samples stuffed pigeon.

Dear Salt,

Since my first visit to Egypt in 2011, my NPR colleague Kimberly Adams has been insisting that I try stuffed pigeon. It's a delicacy in Egypt. I finally took her advice the other night at a Cairo restaurant called the Abu Sid. They serve you the whole bird, with a variety of stuffings; I ordered pigeon stuffed with rice.

The birds are small — small enough that a single order consists of two. There's probably more rice than meat inside, but the rice was moist. I hope it's not too much of a cliché to say that the meat tasted like the darker parts of a chicken.

As you know, many Americans are a little shocked to hear about stuffed pigeon because in the United States, pigeons are widely regarded as little more than rats with wings. And this leads to my question:

Roughly how much of the world regards pigeon as a delicacy and how much as a disgusting pest?

Dear Steve,

The short answer seems to be that in most parts of the world, including some fancy U.S. restaurants, young pigeons (squab) are highly prized for the moist, dark, gamey flesh you just tasted.

These avian superstars are the very same species as the Rock Pigeons that drive New Yorkers crazy, says Courtney Humphries, author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan... And the World. But "the main difference between the pigeons on your windowsill and on your plate is: Lifestyle," Humphries says.

Those juicy little squabs we eat didn't scavenge the city for garbage.

If you dine on pigeon in the U.S. – whether in Chinatown, Little Italy or a white tablecloth restaurant — your bird probably came from somewhere like the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in South Carolina. This institution, founded in the 1920s, raises hundreds of thousands of squabs every year, as well as Cornish hens and poussin.

And you can be sure that the pigeons you ate in Cairo were raised for the plate too. "Egyptian pigeons are bred only for consumption," says Anne-Marie Bissada, a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who writes the cooking blog The Egyptian Kitchen. "All throughout the countryside, you can find these little towers that keep all the pigeons," she says.

But, there are feral pigeons in Egyptian cities, she tells The Salt, and "the pigeons that we hate in North America are just as hated there, too."

In fact, it seems that once you get a taste for grilled or stuffed pigeon, a pigeon problem won't be far behind. Andrew Blechman, who wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, says "the vast majority of today's feral pigeons can trace their roots to the proliferation of dovecotes across Eurasia. Ancient Rome was populated with feral pigeons nesting on its monuments and homes." And Courtney Humphries points out that "the street pigeons we see in North America today are here because pigeons were carried over on ships to feed European colonists."

But whether you love the bird or hate it, The Salt can't think of a more fitting topic for your your last culinary post from the Revolutionary Road. Pigeons are not just the world's oldest domesticated bird — more ancient than Ancient Egypt — but a delicacy prized across North Africa, and a food for the poor as well as the powerful.

But, as Andrew Blechman observes, they are also the long time bearers of good and bad news. "It was a pigeon that delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C., and a pigeon that first brought news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later."

Now, of course, we have NPR.

Thank you, Steve, and safe travels.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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