• sf life
August 9, 2000
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culture shocked

Bird brained

By Katharine Mieszkowski

" Don't eat pigeons! Eat pussy!" two young women chant fervently. Now, there's an activist slogan that seems unlikely to be met with much opposition. But in this crowd it's near heresy. At the "Bay Area Rotisserie Friends Fourth Annual Pigeon Roast" in Union Square, pigeons aren't a filthy nuisance; they're a little-known source of free protein. Why pay $20 and up for a tiny piece of something called "squab" in a pricey bistro when you could be living off the land for free right here in downtown San Francisco?

"We can't pay your rent, but you don't have to pay for dinner," proclaims "Tucker," one of more than a dozen proponents of the pragmatic benefits of pigeon consumption who've gathered here this afternoon. He's brandishing a petition demanding that the Board of Supervisors make the rock dove, a.k.a. pigeon, the official bird of San Francisco. I beg off signing, explaining that it would compromise my journalistic integrity to make such a political gesture, even for such a worthy case. Unbowed, Tucker enthuses, "It's a renewable resource," gesturing to the flocks of aimless pigeons wandering around us. "That's dinner for 15 at least," he says, pointing to the pigeon-laden statue in the middle of the square.

Not only are pigeons abundantly available, they're also downright antiestablishment. "We're fighting the culinary elitism of the dot-com culture," says Mike Burstein, another pigeon-cuisine enthusiast.

And for pigeon hunting, there's not a lot of gear to buy. "It's kind of like a utopian situation," adds one Aaron Daniel, another Rotisserie Friend. "The equipment you need to make a net costs $3.50, the same as a burrito."

Alas, there isn't any actual roasting going on at this so-called summer game roast, but there are some very authentic-looking charred birds in take-out Styrofoam boxes, awaiting consumption. And a few of the pigeon people – who wear T-shirts that read "Pigeon, the other, other white meat" – actually appear to be chowing down on them with relish.

Like all public gatherings of like-minded individuals reveling in a nutty cause, there is the obligatory helpful pamphlet to better inform the as yet unenlightened. The treatise "Why eat pigeon?" includes recipes, instructions on how to catch your own, and little-known pigeon "facts" such as "A pigeon's bill is as clean as stainless steel." And, of course, with any important cause, there has to be dissent. Idealistic pigeon-loving children carrying roses and flyers, which identify them as members of the Pigeon Eating Temperance Association, beg onlookers to "Just Say NO to Eating Pigeons!!!" Among their arguments: "Avian-Americans have a right to enjoy their urban culture without fear of oppression."

Yet, the pigeon-rights advocates' moral indignation and outrage at the specter of pigeons as food is nothing compared to that of the utterly earnest animal-rights activists just across the street. You almost have to feel sorry for the antifur activists picketing Neiman-Marcus, with their dour signs bearing the utterly obvious slogan "Fur is Dead" without a trace of irony. What bad timing. How humiliating to be so upstaged by a merry bunch of mad carnivores calling for the consumption of pigeons, of all things. Some fur protesters are so peeved that they can't hold back their indignation, resorting to calling the Rotisserie Friends "ugly" because they eat meat.

With cries of "Free our lunch!" and "We eat pigeons! Yes, we do! We eat pigeons! How about you?" the Bay Area Rotisserie Friends hog the attention of passers-by. TV news camera crews, here to film the antifur activists, have found something more colorful to point their cameras at. "I'm all for animal rights," one pigeonivore muses. "After everyone has a good meal."

Unfortunately, Animal Control is not as amused as everyone else by this anarchic pigeon-consumption prank, brought to you by the Cacophony Society. A bike cop swoops in with the Animal Control operatives, smiling and shaking his head like a teacher bemused at naughty students: "I told you you were going to get in trouble," he says. Captain Guldbech of Animal Control and her minions confiscate the bird carcasses and start asking some tough questions. "It's illegal to kill birds in San Francisco," Guldbech announces, which sort of puts a damper on the whole free-food-for-the-masses mantra. Soon the Rotisserie Friends confide that they haven't in fact killed a single bird; they bought these roasted pigeons this morning somewhere in Chinatown. But were they serving them? Guldbech says she encountered one tourist from Ohio, who was brandishing a licked-clean bird bone in hand and declaring the pigeon "delicious."

The Rotisserie Friends maintain their innocence in the crime of giving away pigeon wings, arguing that they were just consuming the feathered feast themselves, picnic-style. After some officious exchange of phone numbers, with promises to sort this matter out, the Animal Control officials retreat with the bird booty. "Hopefully, they'll put it in the fridge so it will hold," worries one member of the rotisserie rally. This leaves the pigeon picnic sadly pigeonless, except for the live kind, which strut around all over the place, mocking the now pigeon-less roast.

Certainly, the pigeon eaters have opened many minds to new culinary possibilities today, but Kevin Connor, an archetypal regular guy, is not among the converts. Connor, who says he just moved to San Francisco from New Jersey yesterday, and has the Jersey accent to prove it, grumbles: "I think these people have bird brains. And they should find something better to do with their lives."

E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at [email protected]. For more about pigeon cuisine, e-mail [email protected].

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