Curiously, however, the most recent edition of Joy of Cooking, published in 2006, contains a recipe for roasted prairie chicken larded with salt pork and stuffed with apples, onions or celery. (Click here to view it.)

This comes courtesy of contributor Rebecca Gray, former food editor of Gray's Sporting Journal, expert on wild game and, incidentally, experienced prairie hunter.

"Historically, it's been one of the top birds to shoot and eat," Gray says. "Joy is supposed to be a comprehensive guide to American cooking, the history of our culinary life in the United States. The prairie chicken is a bird you can't get any other place besides the United States. In several editions of Joy, they only had game birds from Europe. How many people go to Europe to go bird hunting? In this edition we wanted to get back to our roots, to look at American cooking."

The prairie chicken boom, as notated by T.A. Behrman.
The prairie chicken boom, as notated by T.A. Behrman.

And how does it taste?

That depends whom you ask. Technically prairie chicken is a type of grouse, a game bird that lives, and is eaten, in subarctic climates across the Northern Hemisphere. It's all dark meat. (Charles Ranhofer, the legendary chef at Delmonico's, described it as "black," but Gray begs to differ, calling it "white," closer to a domestic chicken than to a woodcock.)

It's also very lean. Back in the day, "They were probably gamy, like duck, because they're smaller," offers Luchetti, who admits she has never eaten a prairie chicken. "And whenever there was an infestation of grasshoppers, which happened quite frequently, the prairie chickens would eat them and that would give them a certain flavor."

"It's like pheasant," says Gray, who has stumbled across prairie chickens while hunting pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse. "It has a real flavor. It's very delicate." (Gray says she has never killed a prairie chicken herself but has picked up breasts left behind by predatory falcons that prefer the eyes, guts and organs.)

Alleger takes a dimmer view, though he prefaces his remarks by noting that he's not a fan of dark meat in general. "It's not as dark as goose, and it tastes better than diving duck," he says, then adds, "You can make jerky out of it, and it tastes pretty good."

Eventually, though, he gives up. "I'll tell you the ideal way to fix a prairie chicken," he confides. "You put it breast-up on a cedar shingle. You spice it, and you smoke it.

"Then you throw out the meat and eat the shingle."

There's nothing too death-defying here," Alleger says, settling into his fold-up armchair in the duck blind and wiping his eyes. (He's a world-class allergy sufferer.) "The worst thing that happens this time of year is a sunburn. You could step into a jackrabbit hole in the summer. I could be like Marlin Perkins" — here he launches into an imitation of St. Louis' own dearly departed host of Wild Kingdom — "'I'll just hunker down in this duck blind with the women.'"

Outside the duck blind, it's finally light enough to make out patches of high grass and stubble. There's less vegetation here, on the Kansas prairie, than there is in Missouri — an advantage, Alleger says, for the prairie chicken. If you're a prairie chicken and you see a harrier looming on the horizon, you need to be able to run, not get tangled in tall grass.

Missouri is rainier than Kansas, too. Though prairie chickens aren't too bothered by cold weather — the entire population at Wah'Kon-Tah survived this past winter's blizzard by burrowing down into the 22 inches of snow — a rainstorm can do them in. "They can't thermo-regulate," Alleger explains. "They get wet, they die."

Not surprisingly, there's a high mortality rate among prairie chicks. Each hen lays fifteen to eighteen eggs at a time; of those, only six to eight will hatch chicks that will live to adulthood. Eggs get submerged in water, and the unhatched chicks freeze to death. Other species lay eggs in prairie-chicken nests, and when the strangers hatch, the prairie hen abandons her own eggs, whereupon they become food for mice or badgers. Hatchlings, and even adults, get carried off by bigger birds.

"The hawks go after the prairie chickens in the air," says Rebecca Gray. "It's quite dramatic. They grab them and bring them down and then kill them."

Only 50 percent of all prairie chickens live longer than two years.

"It's much better to be a hawk than a prairie chicken," Alleger sums up from his chair. "They're way at the bottom of the food chain."

As Alleger talks, the sky lightens. A thin band of clouds covers the sun, so there's no glorious prairie dawn, but now you can make out the various shades of grass: khaki and beige and nut brown.

Then you hear it: a thin, low piping noise that swells and then fades, like the sound you get when you blow across the top of a Coke bottle.

The prairie-chicken boom.

Alleger goes quiet, scarcely moving. There's a rustling in the grass, and the first prairie cock saunters toward the lek. He's small, only about fourteen inches tall, but he waddles purposefully, his head bobbling at the end of his long neck. A few birds skitter through the air after him, and within a few moments the lek is full of prairie cocks. They're all ready to mate, and they're booming for the hens to come out and play.

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