The men sit in the dark room — their heads shrouded, hidden from God. Before each of them sits a tiny delicacy easily concealed in the palm of a hand, victim of one of the cruelest and most unusual fates to await anything eaten by human beings. What they are about to do is unconscionable; gluttony at its most heedless and self-gratifying. It will also be the highlight of their lives as epicures. The songbirds enter their mouths whole, and then the diners begin to chew — piercing the fat, crushing the bones, mashing the blood and flesh into a diabolical and delicious paste. Eventually, the sounds subside. They swallow, lift their napkins, look each other in the eye once more. In front of each of them, no signs of the ortolans remain.
It didn’t always happen like this. Ortolans have indeed been a delicacy for centuries, and the detail of their progress from field to table has certainly always made for uncomfortable reading. But the myth of the ortolan — the dark room, the napkins, the sin, and the shame — is a relatively modern invention. The past 20 years have witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of English-language representations of ortolan-eating, despite the fact that the practice remains strictly illegal in France, and thus, unavailable in many of the world’s greatest dining destinations. This year, the bird has taken wing on the small screen in Showtime’s Billions and HBO’s Succession. Both shows offer clear perspectives on (male) obsession, ambition, and excess. Both invoke the same ritual of shrouds, gluttony, and shame.
But why did the ortolan break free of its place in the pantheon of classical French cuisine? How did it become a symbol of something else entirely? And when they make their characters eat ortolans, what are showrunners really trying to say?
First, perhaps, some facts: The ortolan bunting, Emberiza hortulana, is a songbird native to many European countries and to parts of Western Asia. In the Landes department of France, hunters traditionally laid out special nets, or matoles, in order to trap the birds during their annual migration. Ortolans feed at night, so the captured birds were typically fattened on millet by keeping them caged in perpetual darkness. The birds were then killed, cooked, and eaten.
This kind of ortolan has long been a pre-eminent delicacy of the French table, but the ortolan of English-language fantasy — the bird kept in the dark or purposely blinded, force-fed, drowned in Armangac, roasted in fat until it “sings,” and consumed in a single mouthful — is harder to identify. Proust mentions “various recipes” and preparations for the bird in The Guermantes Way, published in the early 1920s. The encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, first published in 1938, also lists multiple alternatives to the simple roast preparation (including the ludicrous foie-truffle-sweetbread overkill of ortolans à la Carême).
The significance of the shrouding napkin, too, has changed over time. When the titular courtesan in 1958’s Gigi (based on the 1944 book) is taught how to eat the bird “properly,” she uses a knife and fork, her head bare. Until relatively recently, those who chose to make use of a napkin mainly did it to heighten pleasure, not mask shame. A 1987 video how-to guide by Marie-Thérèse Ordonez — a French Julia Child, colloquially known as Maïté — provides just two reasons for the practice: to minimize unsightly displays (bony songbirds, however tiny, not being especially elegant to eat when consumed whole and piping hot), and to concentrate the senses. A delicacy like ortolan, Maïté explains, must be enjoyed “to the maximum.”
Such brazen and conspicuous consumption, however, would soon become a thing of the past. The hunting of ortolan was banned by the European Union in 1979. Various pieces of legislation banning the hunting, capture, or possession of the birds have been in place since the 1990s, and the French government has recently started to take enforcement seriously.
The disappearance of the ortolan from the public table only served to heighten its mystique. Prices on the black market spiraled (sometimes topping $200 a bird). Would-be ortolan eaters increasingly had to be a close enough confidant of a pro-ortolan chef or poacher to gain access to their closely-guarded personal supply. Ortolan, once a delicacy, was now also a borderline-taboo symbol of gluttony enjoyed in defiance of the laws of nature and the laws of man.
The quintessential story of this era, as later recounted in Michael Paterniti’s 1998 Esquire story “The Last Meal,” surrounds a legendary dinner on New Year’s Eve, 1995, enjoyed by the dying President François Mitterand of France. Mitterand, it was said, gorged on Marennes oysters, foie gras, capon, and then not one, but two ortolans, in full Armagnac-and-napkin-shroud regalia. He died eight days later, apparently without another morsel having passed his lips.
Paterniti’s essay dwells on the cruelty and carnality of what it means to eat ortolans. He describes seeing three uncooked birds with “tiny, bloated bodies… their eyes small, purple bruises,” and also notes how a room full of ortolan-eaters will fill with “wet noises” including “the crunch and pop of bone and tendon.” But, as with the other great English language account of ortolan-eating — Anthony Bourdain’s in the memoir Medium Raw — Paterniti also relishes in the illicit pleasure of what Bourdain calls a “never-in-a-lifetime” experience: the commingling of sacred and profane that reconfigures Mitterand’s meal and the broader act of ortolan-eating as a pagan Last Supper, the taking of body and blood in service of a higher power.
From here, the modern, mythologized ortolan took flight.
The ritualistic exclusivity and excess described by Bourdain and Paterniti — their descriptions of illicit pleasures denied to the 99.9 percent — remained preeminent in the cultural imagination. Invariably, subsequent English-language accounts would mention the napkin, the tininess of the bird, the drowning in Armagnac, the sinfulness of it all. They would mention the price and the illegality, the impossibility of procuring one unless you knew exactly the right people. And so by the time that society had started looking back on the 2008 recession, and had started to make art about the kind of people that hastened it, this version of the ortolan had become a perfect culinary symbol of a certain kind of late capitalist elitism — and an associated appetite for truly unique and privileged access.
It’s a clear preoccupation in Succession, for example, where wealth is positioned as something that removes you from the domain of everyday people with their everyday concerns. “Look, here’s the thing about being rich: it’s fucking great,” says wealth-obsessed interloper Tom Wambsgans (played by Matthew Macfayden). ”It’s like being a superhero, only better: You get to do what you want, the authorities can’t really touch you, you get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani, and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.”
This monologue features in the show’s sixth episode “Which Side Are You On?” in which Wambsgans introduces the dynastic Roy family’s clueless cousin Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) to life among the one percent by taking him out for a fancy dinner. It is no surprise that ortolans feature prominently in the meal: for people obsessed with how wealth is like being a superhero, only better, a delicacy once described as “like foie gras, only better” has an obvious appeal.
But ortolan in the broader context of the series is an especially apt choice of dish: Part of the reason Tom is taking Greg out in the first place is to thank him for his help in covering up a series of horrific abuses on board family’s cruise line. Referring to the napkin-shroud of ortolan mythology, Tom explains, “Some say it’s to mask the shame; others, to heighten the pleasure.” It plays a dual role here, suggesting the wrongdoing hidden from the world by gleeful profiteers, and reconfiguring Tom (and, by association, Greg) as sin-eaters, helping to ritualistically purify the Roy empire through their actions. In an earlier episode, family scion Kendall Roy tells Tom that his father particularly loves employees who “ate the shit for him and he never even knew it.” After their act of corporate shit-eating, it’s now time for Tom and Greg to devour their reward.
They do so at what Tom refers to as “one of the most exclusive pop-ups in the city,” a flashy declaration that shows him for who he truly is. As Emilia Petrarca notes at The Cut, as much as Tom may claim that the costume of wealth doesn’t make you look like a prick, the recurrent theme of Succession is that “its characters are, in fact, huge pricks.” This is a show that “nails what it looks like to have too much money and no style,” in which a character’s every fashion, food, or beverage choice serves to highlight their respective worldview. Think of Kendall, buying trendy (and very ugly) Lanvin sneakers en route to a pitch with a prospective VC acquisition. Or think of the show’s moral compasses, cousin Greg, earnestly entreating Tom to go to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner instead, saying, “It’s pretty delicious, Tom… they make the Cajun chicken linguini just how I like it.”
Like Succession, Billions also locates itself at the nexus where the lust for money and power runs up against ego and anxiety. In an episode of the Recode Media podcast, showrunner Brian Koppelman describes his fascination with what he calls “the VIP room beyond the VIP room,” recounting how a restaurateur told him that billionaires “don’t necessarily want the best treatment at an inclusive place. What they want is to be in an exclusive environment.”
Accordingly, a classic Paterniti-style ortolan dinner ritual opens the third season’s sixth episode — an ultra-scarce ingredient enjoyed in the ultimate exclusive environment, a billionaire’s home. As in Succession, the bird again embodies secrecy and illicit activity (in this case, an illegal short whose unspooling provides the backdrop to most of Season 3). There is an even more powerful echo of Paterniti and Mitterand here, as under-pressure hedge-fund head Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) contemplates his own Last Supper before turning himself in to the DA.
And then there is the episode’s title, “The Third Ortolan,” which is explained during a short exchange over dinner between Axe Capital COO Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) and real-life celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne. Wags, “still a little peckish,” asks Dufresne whether he has any ortolans leftover. Dufresne replies, “You know what they say about ortolan? ‘One is bliss, two is gluttony.’” Wags responds, simply, “How about three?”
Taking a third ortolan is the perfect summation of the more-is-more self-gratification of the elites portrayed on Billions, people — in Koppelman’s eyes — “willing to go to a place beyond gluttony for their particular form of satisfaction, no matter who has to get drowned in Armagnac as a result of it.”
Typically, though, the show stops short of outright condemning this behavior. Instead, it offsets it with a scene in the same episode, in which US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) dines on a pigs’ ear salad with political fixer Black Jack Foley (David Strathairn). He tells Foley, “You know, every time I eat pigs’ ears, I’m reminded how alert and alive they once were… makes me feel a little bad.” He then tucks in regardless, explaining, “I feel a little bad about a lot of things I do… doesn’t stop me.”
From its first episode, Billions has concerned itself with eroding the dividing wall of morality between the forces of “good” and “evil,” showing apparent antagonists Axelrod and Rhoades really to be two sides of the same coin. Concepts like mortality and legality are constructs — liable to slip by or be done away with entirely when they obstruct the protagonists’ ambitions. In “The Third Ortolan,” Rhoades pays an associate to plant incriminating evidence in Axelrod’s property, straying into outright criminality. He may feel bad about it, but it doesn’t stop him.
Seen in this light, the modern-day ortolan starts to look a little different. It is indeed the perfect shorthand — in the universes of Billions and Succession — for what makes both shows so queasy about capitalism. But is it really any worse than foie gras, or bluefin tuna, or grouse? Or, indeed, the mass slaughter of hundreds of millions of farm animals per year? As much as both shows critique specific extreme examples of capitalist ideology, neither of them is willing to suggest that the problem stops with Bobby, Chuck, or the Roy family. Capitalism, instead, is a universal malady: the more exposed you are to it, the more sick you get.
In a 2006 piece for The Stranger, Brendan Kiley explores the link between the modern urban experience and the foods that we eat. The article contains a lengthy digression on the cruelty of eating ortolan, but Kiley stops short of condemning it as definitively worse than any other form of conspicuous animal consumption. “The luxury of urbanism lets us forget that eating is always about blood, about one thing suffering and dying so another thing can live,” Kiley writes. “With every bite — whether ortolan, salmon, or chicken burrito — we swallow a mouthful of death.”
Both shows obsessed with food, Billions and Succession may make the ortolan the most visible symbol of their critique of late-stage capitalism, but it is hardly a unique one. To put it another way: all carnivorism is capitalism at its most unequal, unjust, and cruel. Eating ortolan just makes things explicit.
George Reynolds is a food writer based in the UK. He is a regular contributor to Eater London.
Editor: Greg Morabito