It started with a fantastically gothic bird wing. Diners lucky enough to experience Noma’s first-ever “game and forest season” in the fall of 2018 were served a tempura-fried mallard wing, its inky feathers still attached. Another course found guests eating duck brain out of a duck skull. The utensil provided was a spoon made out of duck beak.
In the year that followed, Dead Bird became the fine dining aesthetic. When Josh Skenes planted his flag in Los Angeles with Angler, he did so with a whole chicken, roasted on the restaurant’s open hearth and served with the feet still on and dangling off the platter — plus tongs that also looked like bird feet. At the treacherously named Birdsong in San Francisco, a wood pigeon was served after fermenting with “viscera (guts) intact,” deboned, head attached. Birdsong also offered guinea hen ground and shaped into a meatball, then skewered back onto the bone of the bird, presented as finger food atop a bowl of feathers. And a whole roasted chicken came to the table at LA’s Bon Temps with its feet crossed daintily, one over the other, cascading off the plate.
Contemporary fine dining has long been product-centric — and not only in the “perfect piece of fruit at Chez Panisse” sense. The baseline assumption is that in an expensive meal, everything from the smallest herb garnish to the show-stopper proteins are top of the line. A seat in those hallowed dining rooms can mean access to, say, hard-to-find mushrooms or beef from a specific small-scale farm. But it’s not just rarity that make these ingredients special: Provenance — or the origin of the food, the sense that it’s thoroughly of its place — is part of it, too, and putting bird corpses on the table pushes the idea of provenance further than a list of farms on a menu ever could. Instead of being another piece of something on a plate, these birds reveal their whole form, telling the story of what they are with bones, feathers, feet, and all.
But the meaning of the dead bird trend becomes more than just spectacle when placed in contrast with 2019’s other big trends: a mass-market fried chicken sandwich and the rise of fake meat. The Popeyes fried chicken sandwich debuted in August and commanded lines, hot takes, and fever-like devotion for months, despite the fact that this chicken was assuredly the product of despicable industrial-scale farming and fast-food labor practices. Meanwhile, the biggest food retail story of the year was the increasing ubiquity of the various lab-created, plant-based faux-meat products. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are selling themselves as meat made from plants, next-generation proteins that actually taste like meat. When made into burgers, they’re meant to be juicy, pink, and easily mistaken for the real thing.
The dead birds, by contrast, make a radical claim about their authenticity. You can’t point to a specific chicken that’s sandwiched inside your Popeyes bun, and it’s hard to articulate what Impossible Burgers are even made of or how they can “bleed.” But you sure as hell know what you’re eating when the feathers and claws are right there telling you.
”I’ve definitely heard from a lot of guests that it’s nice to see what it is that you are eating,” says Mette Søberg, head of research and development for Noma’s test kitchen. There are other senses to consider, too. “The idea of touching something, getting to touch the wing or the feathers, some animal skin. All these tactile feelings are very important.”
While it feels like a new moment in fine dining, the beautiful dead bird is not particularly novel. There’s a long, global history of displaying birds with their heads or feet still intact, whether they’re Chinese hanging roast ducks or the elusive French ortolan. Søberg says Noma found inspiration for its game and forest season from the Medieval feasts of Europe, where royals and nobles would sit at lavish tables topped with whole swans and vegetables decorated to look like animals. (Interestingly, on the same day in October, not one but two food publications ran stories with the headline: “Why don’t we eat swans?” So I don’t expect dead birds to go anywhere in 2020.)
Centuries later, the Victorians had images of hunting and animal deaths carved into the sideboards that decorated their dining rooms. In the seminal academic work “Death in the Dining Room,” scholar Kenneth Ames argues that this imagery helped the Victorians see themselves as superior to animals through hunting; these pieces of furniture, he claims, represented how ceremonialized eating had become. This wasn’t eating, this was dining — and the deathly imagery helped prove it.
Sarah Anne Carter, professor of design studies and the visiting executive director of the Center for Design and Material Culture at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology, also sees connections between these restaurant dishes and historic taxidermy. In 19th-century western Europe or the United States, a viewer of, say, a mounted bird was “supposed to imagine animals alive in front of [them], even though the skin is stretched over a wire frame, and the eyes are made of glass, and it’s twisted into one position that it can never move from again.”
To a material culture and design scholar like Carter, these restaurant dishes, like 19th-century taxidermy, suggest an attempt at creating evidence. “The dish itself is presenting a material and visual story that is giving you the evidence you need to make a conclusion about its very direct and authentic connection to an animal that once lived,” she says.
And like a piece of taxidermy, these restaurant dishes require an incredible amount of human intervention to present so clear an argument for their natural truth. For the mallard wing, Noma worked with Danish health authorities to ensure that its process of boiling the feathers and spraying them with ethanol would make them safe for diners to touch. (Feathers are a major disease vector.) On the menu for the second game and forest season, which launched on October 15, the feathered wing is gone. There’s a new duck-leg course, featuring meat that’s been taken entirely off the bone and then put back with crispy duck skin, grilled with a blueberry and duck garum glaze, and served with the bone acting as a skewer. For this year’s duck-head course, the brain is tempura-fried, garnished with a feather, and placed back into the skull. The skulls are cleaned, boiled, sanitized, and then coated in beeswax to ensure that the brain is easily scoopable by a diner. The beak (sanitized and coated in beeswax like the skull) acts as a serving dish for a helping of duck heart tartare. It’s a lot of work to create the effect of simply letting the bird’s form speak for itself.
There are all sorts of reasons why medieval and Victorian visual tropes might resonate with today’s wealthiest diners. (This was the year we watched the end of Game of Thrones, for example.) A critical defining feature then, as now, is a profound divide between the lives of those at the top and those at the bottom. And it’s in that difference that luxury finds its definition. To experience refinement in dining is to experience whatever the opposite of regular food is.
As the distance between the Noma-going diners and the Noma-not diners grows, the distance between what the dishes look in each realm does, too. Mass dining culture this year was fixated on questionably sourced chicken on the one hand and, on the other, patties made from lab-grown plant matter that appear to — but of course don’t actually — bleed. Fine dining distinguished itself by tacking in the complete opposite direction, offering diners unabashedly organic-looking birds to gnaw. In 2019, the height of luxury was knowing that you were eating the thing you were told you were eating. And is there a better way to trust a bird is a good bird than to see its face, its feathers, its bones?
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.