The prairie has dwindled to 3 percent of Missouri's land, most of it privately owned. There are just 500 prairie chickens in the entire state. Alleger and the Department of Conservation will stop importing the prairie chickens from Kansas next year, but they hope that within ten years the population will grow to 3,000 birds.

Regardless, the prairie chicken's glory days are already over, including the prominent place it once occupied on America's dinner tables and in its cookbooks, an era that is, for the most part, long forgotten.


More than 150 years ago, Mark Twain, then known as Sam Clemens, had to get up before dawn to hunt prairie chickens, too. "I remember," he wrote in his Autobiography, "how we turned out, mornings, while it was still dark, to go on these expeditions, and how chilly and dismal it was, and how often I regretted that I was well enough to go."

In the dark, conservationists set up duck blinds for chicken-spotting. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
In the dark, conservationists set up duck blinds for chicken-spotting. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Max Alleger's always happy to be out of the office and back on the prairie. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
Max Alleger's always happy to be out of the office and back on the prairie. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.

But Twain's reward was greater than the warm glow of restoring a nearly lost habitat. He got to dress and cook and eat the prairie chicken. Many years later, traveling through Europe and dissatisfied with the local cuisine, he drew up a list of the American foods he missed the most. It was a lengthy list, comprising more than 75 items, and about two-thirds of the way down, right beneath "canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore," was "prairie-hens, from Illinois."

Prairie chickens became a staple on dinner (and breakfast) tables soon after white settlers arrived in the Midwest in the early 1800s, and they stayed that way through most of the nineteenth century. There were a lot of them, and they were easy to hunt. As Cathy Luchetti, a California-based food historian who specializes in the cuisine of the American frontier, observes, "Anything on the frontier became food.

"I would imagine the Native Americans ate it first," Luchetti continues. "They used the clay-jacket method, where you completely cover the chicken in clay and put it on a fire for a couple of hours. The clay would harden, and then they would crack it off, pluck the chicken and eat it. It was a very popular way of handling birds."

At the Cahokia Mounds, just across the river from St. Louis, archaeologists have found the remains of prairie chickens alongside the deer, bobcats and bald eagles that were presented as tributes to the most elite members of Cahokia society and consumed at harvest feasts every fall.

The settlers expanded on prairie-chicken preparation. They roasted the birds over open fires, baked them in ovens and boiled them into soup. (In Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, prairie-chicken broth is instrumental in helping the Ingalls family to recover from malaria.) They ate them cold, on picnics. They dredged them in flour and fried them. Sometimes they minced the meat and served it on toast with butter and pepper.

"My favorite recipe comes from the 1880s," says Luchetti. "It begins, 'Soak grains of wheat in alcohol and scatter them where prairie chickens are in the habit of feeding.' I have no idea how that worked out as far as taste goes. But it was an easy method of catching birds."

Unlike other foods of the frontier, like buffalo, the prairie chicken caught on back East. The railroads brought insulated shipping barrels full of frozen birds to St. Louis and Chicago and New York. The bill of fare for an 1865 "complimentary dinner" at the Lindell Hotel in St. Louis in honor of General William T. Sherman included, among more than 30 dishes, "Silvet of Prairie Chicken, a la Perigeur," which apparently means it was served with a sauce made from red wine, Madeira and truffles. The prairie chicken had indeed moved far beyond its humble frontier roots. It eventually arrived in the kitchen of Delmonico's in New York, the most famous restaurant in nineteenth-century America.

"It reminds me today of venison," says Bruce Kraig, president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. "You can get it in the countryside where there are hunters or at very high-end restaurants. Prairie chickens had the same function in the nineteenth century, and increasingly so: They became an even more high-end and prestigious food as they became more rare."

By 1900, Kraig says, the prairie chicken had largely disappeared from restaurant menus — and from the prairies. Thanks to the invention of the reaper and the steel plow, which could cut through sod, much of the prairie had been converted into farmland, leaving prairie chickens less room to roost. Hunters had further depleted their ranks — not just those who lived on the frontier, but also tourists from the east who found the birds an easy target (which presumably made them feel like successful hunters). One composed a prairie hunting song for the upper-crust New York outdoor magazine Spirit of the Times. It went, in part

When the mid-day sun, its course has run,
And evening gales are heard
'Midst the golden grain, we'll shoot again,
The whirring Prairie bird.

It took longer for the prairie chicken to disappear from cookbooks, but Luchetti can find no trace of them after 1920. The famous Depression-era Federal Writers' Project, which documented traditional American food, uncovered no prairie-chicken recipes.

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