March 28, 2015 – There’s nothing rocky, Cornish or gamey about Rock Cornish Game hens. There’s nothing exotic about them. In fact, the Rock Cornish Game hen on your plate might not even be a hen. Suppliers pay no attention to the bird’s sex. They’re all called hens. Embarassing for the guy birds. But what’s a hen to do?
Like so many of the foods we love the Rock Cornish Game hen came into existence out of disaster. One of those “What do we do now?” moments.
The story starts, as many food stories do, in rural France, the birthplace of Alphonsine Therese Davalis, known as “Te” to her family and friends. At the young age of 15 she moved to Paris where she found work in a milliner’s store and a cheese shop.
There she met Jacque Makowsky, a prominent printer. Makowsky had been a printer for Nicholas II, the last Tsar of the Russians. He had fled to Paris to escape the Bolshevik Revolution.
Jacque and Te were married in 1933. By 1940 they were on the run again. This time fleeing Paris after France fell to the Nazis. Fortunately for them, for us, for food lovers everywhere, they wound up in the United States. Specifically in New York City. There Jacque resumed his printer’s trade until he retired in 1946.
Like many urban dwellers retirement allowed them to pursue a new dream. They moved to Connecticut where they operated a farm they named Idle Wild Farm. They raised Guinea hens for upscale New York restaurants.
In 1949 disaster struck. A fire destroyed much of their farm including the entire flock of Guinea hens. Another “What do we do now?” moment for Jacque and Te.
Luckily Te had been reading about various breeds of chickens. She suggested that they try cross-breeding a Cornish Game chicken, noted for its short legs and plump, round breast, with a White Plymouth Rock chicken. She thought the result would be a small bird with succulent meat that they could market after about four weeks of growth rather than the standard seven weeks.
She had no idea how successful her plan would be. She had thought it would be a way to keep the farm while they restored their flock of Guineas. Instead the upscale restaurants who were their customers, including the prestigious 21 Club, loved the new birds. By the mid ’50s the Makowsky’s were receiving orders for 3,000 Rock Cornish Game hens per day.
At first it was a bird enjoyed only by the upper classes in fancy restaurants. The musician and comedian Victor Borge was an early supporter of the Makowskys. He was the one who made the general public aware of the Rock Cornish Game hen. By the late 1950s the small birds were showing up in home kitchens throughout the country.
The recipe that follows is nothing new. It’s been published in dozens of cookbooks and featured on scores of cooking shows. Most everyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen has used it. It’s just a really good way to cook a Rock Cornish Game hen. Or a chicken.
There’s nothing sacred about the spices listed here. Use your favorites. Just be sure they’re fresh rather than dried.
Rock Cornish Game Hens with Fresh Herbs
2 Rock Cornish Games hens Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste 1/2 stick butter 1/3 cup chopped parsley 3 tablespoons snipped chives 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary 1 tablespoon chopped thyme 1 tablespoon chopped sage Olive oil Dried sage
Bring the butter to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 450.
Mix the butter, parsley, chives, rosemary, thyme and sage until it is a paste. If you make the paste in a food processor be sure to use the pulse feature. You don’t want a liquid. You want a paste.
Using your fingers, carefully separate the skin from the breast of each bird. Spread some of the herb butter between the skin and breast of the birds. Stuff the cavity of the bird with any left over sprigs of fresh herbs.
Rub olive oil all over the birds. Salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle dried sage over each bird.
Place them into a roasting pan. Cook at 450 for about 20 minutes.
Reduce the heat to 350 and continue to cook for about 40 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the thigh is pierced.