I'm Flattered, Wikipedia
But Seriously, I Don't Know What I'm Talking About
The other day, I was trying to find stuff about the ortolan, a finger-sized bird eaten with cruel ceremony by ancient Romans and modern French. I'd written about it before, but it's stuck in my head. I wanted to check up on the little bird. The "gastronomy" section of the Wikipedia entry included a description of eating one. Awesome, I thought. I wonder what it's like to eat one of those.
The description began: "You catch the ortolan with a net spread up in the forest canopy. Take it alive. Take it home. Poke out its eyes and put it in a small cage."
This sounds familiar. Have I read this before?
"Force-feed it oats and millet and figs until it has swollen to four times its normal size. Drown it in brandy. Roast it whole, in an oven at high heat, for six to eight minutes."
Oh my God, I wrote this!
"Bring it to the table. Place a cloth—a napkin will do—over your head to hide your cruelty from the sight of God."
What am I doing in an online encyclopedia? I'm not an authority!
"Put the whole bird into your mouth, with only the beak protruding from your lips. Bite. Put the beak on your plate and begin chewing, gently. You will taste three things: First, the sweetness of the flesh and fat. This is God. Then, the bitterness of the guts will begin to overwhelm you. This is the suffering of Jesus. Finally, as your teeth break the small, delicate bones and they begin to lacerate your gums..."
"Lacerate"? That's a little much. Simpler word—"cut"—would've done.
"...you will taste the salt of your own blood, mingling with the richness of the fat and the bitterness of the organs. This is the Holy Spirit, the mystery of the Trinity—three united as one. It is cruel. And beautiful. According to Claude Souvenir, chewing the ortolan takes approximately 15 minutes."
Let me back up.
Nine years ago, I was in Paris with my then-girlfriend in a restaurant called Jose's. Jose owned the place, waited tables, and was blind. There was no menu and, between courses, Jose told jokes and stories in French that we couldn't understand.
For dessert, Jose told us customers to pull our tables together and eat our gâteau (or whatever it was, I can't remember) as newfound friends. He told another joke we couldn't understand and the man next to us, a Belgian named Claude Souvenir, translated. When the meal was over, Souvenir invited my girlfriend and me for a nightcap at a sidewalk cafe on the Champs-Élysées.
He seemed suspiciously generic: his middle-tall, middle-weight, middle-aged body; his fake-sounding name; his vagueness about his work. We thought he was a spy.
He bought us a round of beer and talked about Tintin comics (they're Belgian) and the ortolan. He began, as I remember it: "You catch the ortolan with a net spread up in the forest canopy..." He was good company, but we never saw each other again.
His description of the ortolan stayed with me, and last year, when I needed it for a story I was writing for this newspaper, about killing and eating animals, I used it ["The Urban Hunt," Sept 28, 2006]. I wasn't sure I'd remembered his description correctly and did a little research, some of it on Wikipedia. (I'd hate to be wrong.) Nothing was as detailed as Claude's description, but everything checked out.
After the story was published, I didn't think much about the ortolan until the other day when I looked on Wikipedia and started reading my own words.
For the record: I am in no way an expert on the ortolan. That description does not belong in an encyclopedia. It's my paraphrase of a monologue delivered by a weird guy on a tipsy night a decade ago—many details of which (our dessert, for example) I don't remember.
I just Googled "ortolan" and "Wikipedia" and found a blog where somebody quoted my paragraph under the header "WTF?" Commentors freaked out: "Horrible!" "Tasteless!" The stinging one: "There is no way that this can be real."
Shit, shit, shit. I'm wrong.
Two comments later, someone named MadFox rushed to my rescue: "I saw Jeremy Clarkson eat one of these on his Meet the Neighbours programme a few years ago, it seemed to be pretty much exactly as described including cloth on head eating. Pretty disgusting if you ask me."
Thanks, MadFox! I may be disgusting, but at least I'm right—some stranger on the internet says so.