This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
The Woodcock (Scolopax Rusticola), gets its food mainly by suction, and is clean for cooking in its entirety, except the gizzard, after being plucked of the feathers. The flesh is better as the winter advances. It may be eaten with benefit by asthmatic persons, but cannot be kept fit for the table long after being killed; the rump and the loins are furnished with firm white fat. Montreuil has a high reputation for its woodcock pates. In English clubs when woodcocks and snipes are served, their heads are taken off and returned to the kitchen, from whence they reappear at the end of dinner smothered in mutton fat, and well seasoned with salt and pepper; thus prepared they are presented on a plate to each guest, accompanied by a lighted candle. The guest then grills, or rather burns, the head in the flame of the .candle, and proceeds to crunch it whilst still spluttering with the heat, having first well smothered it with cayenne pepper. So says M. Suzanne. Neither bread-sauce, nor fried crumbs are usually served with woodcock. Some persons choose an orange sauce, or cranberry jelly, or red currant jelly. Few dainties can rival a woodcock simply roasted: dress it (likewise red mullet) with a little butter: the gravy which comes from each of them is its best sauce.
Open fire roasting is the only means of doing culinary justice to this noble bird; the inequality of roasting because of the legs makes it clear that such a delicate operation cannot be anyhow effected in a baking oven. The time for cooking may be estimated at from fifteen to twenty minutes, but if over-cooked the bird becomes tough, and without savour. Serve on toast, and garnish with watercress.
Retrievers do not like the scent of the woodcock, and will frequently decline to bring it in. November and December are the woodcock months.
"A la Saint Michel Becasse tombe du ciel".
A curious doctrine termed "Totenism" was held of old among the Greeks, and the North American Indians, this signifying the existence of persons who asserted their several claims to descent from, and kinship with certain birds, beasts, or vegetables. Wherefore because of the particular "totem," or family association, each of such persons would religiously abstain from eating his, or her, own kindred creature, or plant. Thus in his Roman Orations, Plutarch asks, "Why do the Latins abstain strictly from partaking of the Woodpecker's flesh?" (Picus). It was the Roman "gens," the Piceni, which specially took the woodpecker for its totem. In Australia we hear of a medicine-man whose clan totem through his mother was a kangaroo, but whose individual (secret) totem was the tiger-snake, on which account snakes of that species would not hurt him. Longfellow in Hiawatha refers to this particular custom.
"And they painted on the grave posts Each his own ancestral totem, Each the symbol of his household, Figures of the bear, and reindeer, Of the turtle, crane, and beaver, Each inverted as a token That the owner was departed".