Skip to main content

A Dainty Dish

Iris Origo, in her book The Merchant of Prato, writes:
‘no banquet was complete without a torta
— the “grete pie” of English cooking’, and she cites
a recipe from Libro della cucina del secolo quattordici
‘in which live songbirds were put into a pie
of which the roof had little windows’, adding:
‘“Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king?”’

A rhyme I’ve known since ‘Listen with Mother’.
The thought that anyone could be so wicked
as to put a single blackbird, let alone so many, live
into an oven never crossed my mind.
The song was but a foolish thing, a toy.
(Later, I read that the four quatrains may carry
coded references to weightier affairs:
Henry the Eighth, his first and second wives,
the dissolution of the monasteries…)

Our mother had a porcelain blackbird
whose body, sleekly broadening below the neck,
held up the crust of the Sunday apple pie. Rising from the roof,
its vertical triumphing head, with yellow beak
open as if to sing, did not sing as it came to table,
didn’t even whistle, but it did emit
a breath, a jet of steam, and someone hummed or sang
a few lines in their seeming innocence
until the pie was opened and more steam engulfed it.
We had opportunities enough to comment on the sight,
since apple pie (with blackberries in September)
was the only dish our father — moderate, monogamous —
ever wanted set before him on a Sunday, after the meat.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author