Cordoba is situated in central Argentina and is roughly about the same size and population as Washington state. Once populated by a thriving indigenous culture prior to the Spanish conquest, the province boasts a long and distinguished history, including the National University in its capital city that has been in existence for nearly 400 years.
Interestingly, Cordoba’s geography also mirrors that of our Pacific Northwest states, with nearly two-thirds of the province’s terrain consisting of high plains well-suited for growing wheat, corn and soybeans, as well as extensive cattle and sheep production. The province provides Argentina with some 15% of its beef and about one-third of its dairy production and like our Midwestern states, has an extensive food-processing industry.
All that is important background to understand the flap over a food-related controversy that has erupted in the province.
According to BBC News, Oscar de Allende, an environmental official in the Argentine province of Cordoba, suggested that authorities were planning the move to help control the swelling population of the ubiquitous birds.
Allende said in an interview with local radio station that Cordoba was suffering an “invasion” of pigeons, with the population reaching an estimated 600 million of the birds. Allende said the birds should be considered an “abundant resource,” rather than a pest.He insisted that pigeons have high protein value, and are highly prized for their meat in areas such as Europe, where some pigeon dishes are "very expensive and considered to be delicacies".
But senior government officials were not amused, according to the BBC report, insisting there was no such plan and that Allende’s claim that a project existed was “nonsense.” A day after the comments surfaced, Cordoba Gov. Jose Manuel de la Sota suspended Allende for what he called his “controversial statements on pigeon consumption.”
Allende subsequently denied that he had been serious about the proposal. “It was just an idea,” he told C5N Television.
Pigeon by any other name
There are so many layers of irony here; I almost don’t know where to begin.
For starters, talking about “feeding poor kids” anything other than the consensus of what’s considered a standard diet is sure to invoke widespread skepticism, if not outrage. Yet for all the activist criticism of the “standard” components of a typical school lunch—too processed, too calorie-loaded, too high in fat—isn’t wild bird meat about as natural and nutritious as you can get?
In fact, pigeons raised domestically and harvested young are known as squab, and especially in the South, they were a viable alternative to the ubiquitous flock of chickens roaming around the farmsteads that comprised rural America not that many generations ago. The pigeons roosted in old barns, were relatively easy to maintain and harvest and provided a cheap and nutritious source of protein.
Today, squab is a culinary delicacy. The Squab Producers of California, an agricultural co-op formed in 1943, represents squab and specialty poultry growers who market to high-end chefs. According to the group’s website, squab is a unique meat with distinguishing characteristic, such as:
- A breeding history that goes back centuries to Asian and Arabic cultures
- Preferential status enjoyed by ancient emperors, pharaohs, and European nobility
- A gourmet favorite among high-end chefs
Or course, modern breeding and feeding have improved the yield, texture and flavor of squab, versus the non-domesticated cousins that are (allegedly) terrorizing Argentina. They mature in only four weeks and yield a pound or so of highly flavorful, succulent meat that resists drying out during cooking much better than chicken or turkey.
Here’s how D’Artangan, a New York-based distributor of foie gras, pâtés, sausages, poultry and wild game that styles itself as “delivering the world's finest natural and organic meats to four-star chefs and home gourmets,” describes squab:
“Squab is our favorite introduction to game birds because it does not have an overly gamey flavor. The bird makes a rich and tender alternative to more traditional poultry. Its lean red meat is perfect for classic French recipes but adaptable to many cuisines.
By the way: The retail price of squab? $18 a pound.
Now, if Mr. Allende had suggested providing school kids with $18-a-pound squab to supplement their PB&J sandwiches, he’s be excoriated for being extravagant and wasteful with the taxpayers’ money.
Likewise, if his suggestion that the pigeon population be controlled by harvesting and utilizing the birds as a food source, as opposed to extermination, he’d be under fire from the PETA types who would cry foul (fowl?) for inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on poor defenseless birds.
Lost in all the hoo-hah is the real issue here: Poor kids often don’t have access to proper nutrition, where they live in Cordoba or California. That ought to be the focus here, rather than a phony sideshow about whether or not pigeons should be eaten or not.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.