A Brief History of Food: Peacock
Birds have long been revered, feared and assumed to be capable of predicting weather, marriage partners, disaster and death. In ancient Roman religion the practice of augury meant interpreting omens from the observed behaviour of birds. When the individual, known as the augur, interpreted these signs, it is referred to as ‘taking the auspices’. 'Auspices' is from the Latin auspicium and auspex, literally ‘one who looks at birds’. Depending upon the birds, the auspices from the gods could be favourable or unfavourable (‘auspicious’ or ‘inauspicious’). Sometimes politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavourable auspices to delay certain state functions, such as elections.
Peacock feathers were especially dreaded. According to Hull schoolmaster, John Nicholson, in 1890: ‘Though peacock feathers are now fashionable and aesthetic, they are looked upon with disfavour by those of the old school, for these feathers were always deemed unlucky.’ Even today it is sometimes heard that having peacock feathers or an object featuring the ‘Devil’s eye’ can bring bad luck.
Sacred to Hera The ancient Greeks, however, believed the flesh of peafowl did not decay after death, so the birds came to symbolise immortality. In Hellenistic imagery, the goddess Hera's chariot was pulled by peacocks, birds that were not known to the Greeks before the conquests of Alexander the Great. Aristotle, Alexander's tutor, refers to ‘the Persian bird’, the beauty of which so amazed Alexander when he encountered them in India that he threatened the severest penalties for any man who killed a peacock.
Argus One myth tells us that Hera's servant, the hundred-eyed Argus Panoptes, was tasked by the goddess to ‘Tether this cow safely to an olive-tree at Nemea’. Hera knew that the heifer was in reality Io, one of the many nymphs her husband Zeus was lustfully pursuing. Having chained Io to the sacred olive tree at the Argive Heraion, Hera needed someone who had at least a hundred eyes to watch in all directions, someone who would stay awake despite being asleep. Argus was meant to be the perfect guardian. To free Io, Zeus had Argus slain by Hermes, the messenger of the Olympian gods. Disguised as a shepherd, Hermes first put all of Argus' eyes asleep with spoken charms, then slew him by hitting him with a stone. According to the Roman poet Ovid, to commemorate her faithful watchman, Hera had the hundred eyes of Argus preserved forever, in the peacock's tail. The symbolism was adopted by early Christianity, where the 'eyes' in the peacock's tail feathers symbolise the all-seeing Christian God.
Gastronomy In ancient Rome, peafowl were served as a delicacy. The dish was introduced there in approximately 35 BC. Peafowl eggs were also valued. Yet the poet Horace ridiculed the eating of peafowl, saying they tasted like chicken. Gaius Petronius in his play 'Satyricon' also mocked the ostentation and snobbery of eating peafowl and their eggs.
During the Medieval period, various types of fowl were consumed. The poorer members of society (such as serfs) typically ate more common birds, such as chicken, partridge, duck and goose. The more wealthy nobility or gentry were privileged to eat more elaborate birds. Dressed swan or peacock seems to have been a favourite at banquets and feasts, usually served in full plumage. Swans were especially popular at medieval royal banquets sometimes alongside an array of other ‘exotic’ birds such as the heron and blackbird. Proof of the latter is seen in the popular children’s nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ (right).
Pecoke receipt For the most part, peacocks were used in medieval feasts for their symbolic value and beauty. As a rule, they were not served as a tasty treat given that the meat was derided in Old English sources as tough and stringy.
‘Cut hym yn necke and skald hym cut of þe fete & hede cast hym on a spete bake hym well the sauce ys gynger.’
England, late 15th century .
Peacocks were not usually roasted whole. Rather, the skin of the bird was carefully removed, preserving its ostentatious feathers, and set aside. The carcass was then skewered for roasting, its neck being fixed upright during the roast to allow for a life-like presentation at service. When the dish was served, its skin and feathers were re-attached to convey the full impressive array of the living bird. The dish appears to have been as important for its display as for the flavour of its meat though the skin could also be stuffed with other foods.
Given that even Mediæval cooks thought peacocks were a poor meat, in any recreation it might be best to substitute a large duck or a goose instead:
1. Modern translation: 'Cut him in (the) neck and scald him. Cut off the feet & head. Cast him on a spit. Bake him well. The sauce is ginger.'