The Not-So-Big Bird

I have always been a very huge fan of a not very huge bird – the so-called rock Cornish game hen.

I’m sure I will love eating the bird forever. But I must admit, I was disappointed to learn just how little of the name I grew up respecting isn’t something akin to a lie, one fabricated in the marketing department by some Poultry Pinocchio.

Turns out, the word “rock” means and adds nothing, as you might suspect. The word “game” means and adds nothing, since the birds are raised, not hunted. The word “hen” means and adds nothing, since either male or female birds can be sold by the name. And the word “Cornish” means and adds very little – though not quite nothing – since it doesn’t actually tell us the bird hails from the remote southwestern section of England known as Cornwall.

It would be so cool to picture the rock Cornish game hen pecking around the last bits of solid ground at wind-tossed Land’s End, with only that little affair known as the Atlantic Ocean between it and Britain’s American colonies.

But no. There is indeed something called a Cornish chicken – a smallish chicken – in the bird’s heritage, along with at least two other breeds. One was the White Plymouth Rock Hen (presumably the origin of the “rock” in the name) and the dangerous-sounding Malayan Fighting Cock. The latter was famous for its large breasts, which in a country that tended to prefer white meat seemed a promising talent indeed. And then, there’s the most disappointing part.

Far from being some ancient and exotic breed with a colorful story to tell – you know, coming over on the Mayflower, venturing west with Lewis and Clark, sailing down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a raft – the bird was actually developed (yes, on purpose) in the mid-1950s by a couple named Alphonsine “Therese” and Jacques Makowsky. In Connecticut, no less. To their credit, narratively speaking, the woman had fled the Nazis in Germany during World War II.

Apparently she was a quick study in the American Way. The real power behind developing the Cornish hen was no one named Makowski but someone named Tyson, the poultry giant whose founders saw the potential of a single-serving bird that was almost entirely white meat. Not some quail you have to eat a pile of. And not some chicken you need to cut into pieces.

Tyson sought investors – one of whom ended up being popular TV musician and comedian Victor Borge – and by the beginning of the 1960s, rock Cornish game hens were an all-American delight. Tyson, in fact, became the largest single producer of the birds, even today responsible for about two-thirds. The hens were, from the beginning, just exotic enough for a nation beginning to get in touch with its inner Julia Child.

Now is the time of year most families enjoy Cornish hens, sometimes even as “your own individual turkey” on Thanksgiving Day. The birds definitely qualify as comfort food, both for their rustic flavor and their “coming of age” during a time that many celebrating still can remember. I love them so much I guess I don’t mind if most of what I knew about them – or presumed or guessed or thought I knew – isn’t the case at all.

“I’d like one of those small but big-breasted chickens from Connecticut, please.” See? It doesn’t have the same ring at all. 

PEPPER JELLY STUFFED CORNISH HENS

You might ask why this recipe calls for both our jalapeno pepper jellies, when certainly one or the other would “work,” depending on where you fit on the Some-Like-It-Hot scale. Simple: the green is sweet and the red is hot, and we like what happens when we go about 50/50. Give this combination a try, if you want Cornish hens like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups loose “Mexican” chorizo

1 small onion, finely chopped

3 green onions, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 cups cooked brown/wild rice mix

4 Cornish game hens

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Mild Green Jalapeno Jelly

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Red Hot Jalapeno Jelly

Heat the olive oil to medium-high and cook the chorizo with the white or yellow onion. When cooked, add the green onion and garlic and stir for about 1 minute, then turn off the heat and mix the rice mix. Let the stuffing cool enough to handle. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Season the Cornish hen inside and out with salt, pepper and lemon pepper; fill each cavity with the stuffing.

Set hens on a sided roasting pan and set in the oven until cooked through and juices run clear when thigh is pierced, about 40 minutes. Liquify the pepper jellies in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove the hens from the oven, spoon mixed pepper jellies over the top and serve with any leftover stuffing and a green salad. Serves 4.

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