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The Healing Powers of Sopa de Paloma
An ancient dish, a new life
Squab is an elegant and tender little bird, a delicacy since ancient times across Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Americas, and the Middle East. It is uncommon in modern American kitchens, partly because its reputation is spoiled by their wayward cousins. The ones we eat aren’t flying rats; they are lovebirds, raised by attentive human caretakers and strictly monogamous parents in the countryside. Some people believe that squab helps with every stage of baby-making, from attraction through postpartum recovery. Also, squab is delicious.
I had squab for the first time in November in a pigeon pie at a French-Cajun restaurant in Newburgh, NY called Mama Roux. It was the first night out my wife Zoraida and I had since our baby was born a few months earlier. The place was candlelit, the windows foggy on a cold night, and a friend sent me a late-birthday whiskey sour as we were being seated.
The pie — paired with a Château La Naude, Bordeaux — was luscious and flavorful, filled with wild boar lardons, walnuts, kabocha squash, maitake, and purple potato. The morsels of squab themselves were exceptionally succulent and a little gamey. The tangy bramble gravy on the plate cut through nicely.
The Chef, Matt Hutchins, explained that squab has only dark meat and is best cooked to a medium-rare. It stays perfectly moist and tender because of the layer of fat under the skin that bastes the bird as it cooks — and because squab is harvested between 28 and 30 days old, before it can fly and toughen the breast meat.
I passed a forkful across the table to Zoraida, and her forehead softened ecstatically as she chewed.
Driving home, we reminisced about our early dates, when we pretended to be a pool-playing Bonnie & Clyde, going bar to bar on our motorcycle. (We’re not actually good). We decided to stop at a dive for a few rounds of pool and more drinks. We had more fun than we’d had in a long time, and we made it home later than expected.
When we walked through the front door that night, glowing and fully charged, we found my mom cooing with our baby Naeem in a leather swivel chair under a reading light in the front room. Before heading to bed, we had a hushed conversation with her that turned to labor and recovery, a hot topic because my sister Katie was also expecting. She asked Zoraida how she was feeling and said, “You know, after I had Lisa [another sister], Abuelita served me sopa de paloma for thirty days straight.”
“What’s that?” I said. “Pigeon soup? I just ate pigeon for the first time tonight. It was great.”
She continued, unmoved by the coincidence. “Yeah, I guess so. I thought it was weird at first. It was a whole little bird in a broth with some potatoes. The meat was really tender. I don’t know where they got all those birds, but I felt great after thirty days.”
My mom’s postpartum recovery plan was to eat 30 days of her mother-in-law’s squab soup, sopa de paloma, something that was still common in Colombia at the time — the ‘70s — but foreign to my American mom. Another coincidence that none of us realized at the time: My sister Katie was thinking of naming her incoming baby Paloma.
I’m not one of those “things happen for a reason” people, but the universe was pushing squab, so I became curious.
People have been eating squab for both vigor and pleasure for millennia. There is a 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet with a recipe for squab soup and there are ancient dovecotes — man-made structures that house single-family pigeonholes — still standing around the world: The mud-brick dovecotes in the Nile Delta. The marvelous honeycombed towers in the Yazd province of Iran. The ornamented dovecote castles on the Greek island of Tinos. The stone dovecotes once kept by the lords of the manors across Great Britain. And adobe dovecotes throughout the Tierra de Campos in Spain.
Jane Canova wrote in the Spring 2005 issue of Gastronomica, “Few other birds have been so revered by man or served him so well.” Under the Muslim Al-Andalus empire on the Iberian peninsula, “Pigeons were regarded as the birds of the prophets and accomplices in amorous intrigues …” Specialists in dietetics and hygiene recommended pigeon and squab meat for their hot and moist complexion, she continues. Their eggs were also eaten as an aphrodisiac along with turnip juice and onions. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain’s Golden Age, eating squab reached a peak; dishes like pigeon pie, squab with truffles and marrow, squash with stuffed squab, and sweet pigeon turnovers with bacon, were being eaten by the most well-fed Spaniards.
The practice of raising squab traveled to Latin America. In Honda, a colonial city on the Magdalena River in a valley of the Colombian Andes, my Abuelita’s neighbor had a small dovecote or palomar; that’s where she got all of those birds for my mom’s soup. My father told me that when he grew up there, he and his seven siblings would have a big bowl of sopa de paloma with three or four birds in it when they were sick. My grandfather — the town pharmacist — thought it was especially important for women postpartum because it was loaded with iron.
The idea that squab is extremely healthy — and has mysterious powers to conjure love, boost fertility and ensure marital fidelity — has existed almost everywhere squab has been part of gastronomic culture. The centuries-old Egyptian squab dish hamam mahshi, roasted squab, stuffed with a nutty cracked green freekeh, used to be served to the bride and groom on their wedding night for an extra boost. The symbolic association likely came from the domestic habits of the birds themselves.
In their little private cubby, the mother and father have a lot of sex, though that aspect wasn’t as blissful as ancient peoples assumed. If the mother isn’t in the mood the father pecks her on the forehead and shirks his household duties until she comes around. Otherwise, unlike other poultry, they share all domestic tasks: foraging supplies and then weaving a nest together, trading day and night shifts for brooding, preparing the “pigeon milk” by chewing up their food, and feeding it into the beaks of their hatchlings. They remain loyal to each other for life. Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan told Food & Wine, “If you lose the male or the female, then the other one is never going to couple again.”
The birds are altricial: They depend on their parents to feed them and can’t really be factory farmed. According to Dalton Rasmussen, the president of Squab Producers of California, it also means you have to “feed four mouths instead of one” (they lay two eggs at a time). This makes them expensive to raise, which contributes to their relative scarcity. Still, if you want to try squab, there are two primary sources in the US: Rasmussen’s California operation, which is a cooperative of 65 independent farmers, and the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in South Carolina.
Rasmussen kindly sent me some samples: a whole bone-in squab, a semi-boneless squab, meant to be stuffed, and some squab breast, which I’ll probably pan roast and serve with a berry sauce.
After learning all of this, and then getting that package of squab in the mail, I was inspired. There are thousands of years and a whole world's worth of recipes for squab that I wanted to try — a sweet glazed, spiced and deep-fried Cantonese dish was really calling my name, and also, Matt Hutchins’ pigeon pie, for which he shared the recipe.
First, I needed to make my sister soup.
My sister Katie and her wife Julia had the baby on Sunday, January 9, and they named her Paloma. The delivery, a C-section, was violent and Katie will need a lot of strength to recover.
I took Monday off, threw everything I had on hand into a pot in the morning — the semi-boneless squab, stock, carrots, potatoes, garlic, celery, onions, Aleppo pepper, saffron, pimentón, bay leaf, and black peppercorn — and let it simmer until every last nutrient was integrated into the liquid; then I packed it into two Ball jars and marked my niece’s birthday on the lids. I showed up to the hospital that evening unannounced, cradling a cooler packed with the jars like they were vials of an antidote.
I didn’t call ahead because visitors aren’t permitted up to the room as part of the hospital’s COVID precautions, and I didn’t want to give them time to think of ways to turn me away. No family member besides Julia had seen my sister for several weeks because there were complications with the pregnancy and she had been hospitalized for the past month. I told the woman at the front desk, “I don’t need to go up, I just need this soup to get to my sister.”
She looked at me closely and then called up to the room and told my sister there was a visitor. She then told me, “Go ahead up to the second floor waiting area — it’s quiet up there — and look out for someone you know, but I didn’t tell you this.” Julia came down first and was shocked to see me. I explained my purpose, and then she left and came back twenty minutes later wheeling Katie in a wheelchair. I recounted the story of the soup and some of the history I had learned, and they teared up. When I told them what a dovecote is and the Spanish word for it, palomar, they both turned to each other, smiling, and said the word slowly. I left after telling them to order some white rice, herbs, and lemons from the cafeteria to go with it.
They each had a bowl of the sopa de paloma that night while their baby Palomita was in the NICU on oxygen and under observation.
The next morning, she was able to breathe on her own and drink a bottle of her mother’s colostrum for the first time; in it, there were traces of her special soup.