The little birds were big in the ’80s (and the ’50s!), but they’re not exactly what they seem.
CORNISH GAME HENS trended in the 1980s, back before “trend” unfortunately became a verb. How elegant they were: dainty in size, their name conjuring a picturesque hunt in the Wordsworthian countryside. My mother used to rub them with lemon juice, lemon zest, finely chopped garlic and crushed fennel seeds, sometimes slicing a lemon very thinly and sliding it under the skin of the breast. Roasted deep golden brown, they presented as the height of sophistication.
As a child, my appreciation of all that was limited, overshadowed by the delight of not having to share — Cornish game hens meant you got your own personal-sized chicken. The fact that they were so cute did not detract one bit from the joy of eating them, each and every piece of the miniature whole all your own.
Turns out that while Cornish game hens might be nominally Cornish, they aren’t game, and they aren’t even necessarily hens. They’re actually, as a child might suspect, just smaller chickens. They’re usually the same Cornish breed as your common broilers, just younger, and sometimes both males and females are included. I’m no poultry expert, but my grandmother had a few chickens, and I’m guessing that younger roosters haven’t yet spent so much time strutting around and crowing about their greatness while getting all tough and stringy, rather than quietly eating, laying eggs and plumping up like the ladies do. (On another familial note, my mom tells me we weren’t so fancy; she bought Cornish game hens only when they were on sale.)
If you can get your hands on a Rock Cornish game hen, that’s a different matter — it’s a cross of different breeds, including, excitingly, the Malaysian fighting cock. According to a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle obituary, Alphonsine “Therese” or “Te” Makowsky, the original breeder of the Rock Cornish, was born in the French countryside, moved to Paris, married a Russian printer who’d worked for Czar Nicholas II and fled the Nazis, eventually farming chickens in Connecticut, where she decided that a fast-growing, single-serving bird was a good idea. The Rock Cornish game hen enjoyed its first vogue in the 1950s, when “the Makowskys’ customers included the finest restaurants in New York, such as the popular 21 Club,” according to the Chronicle.
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Sadly, I’ve not been able to locate any Rock Cornish at all. Non-Rock Cornish game hens from Mary’s Chickens may be found hereabout at PCC and Whole Foods ($5.99 and $7.99 a pound, respectively, at this writing). They grow up free-range near Fresno, Calif., eating non-GMO feed and resting on specially trucked-in rice-hull bedding. They grow up, that is, for 9 to 11 weeks; then Mary’s uses a special humane system that puts them to sleep using carbon dioxide before they meet their maker. QFC and Amazon Fresh stock frozen Cornish game hens — labeled “all natural” (“Minimally processed. No artificial ingredients.”) and much cheaper — from multinational food-industrial-complex giant Tyson, if you can live with that. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground; Draper Valley Farms should get on it.
At 1½ or 2 pounds per bird, and one bird per person, the well-reared Cornish game hen represents something of a treat. (For comparison, whole organic roasting chicken is going for $3.29 a pound at PCC and $3.99 at Whole Foods at the moment.) But they still seem fancy, and they’re still really fun to eat. Here’s the way I made some recently. (I didn’t bother with Mom’s nicety of the very thin slice of lemon under the skin, but you could!)
Cornish game hens with herbes de Provence and lemon
You can roast Cornish game hens with any of the herbs, spices and accompaniments you like with your roasted regular-size chicken. And any favorite method you have for roasting chicken ought to work just as well — but because Cornish game hens are smaller, they’ll roast faster.
¾ lb. small potatoes (red, white, medley, whatever)
¼ lb. carrots
⅛ lb. mushrooms
1 teaspoon olive oil
Herbes de Provence
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
2 Cornish game hens
2 tablespoons butter
1 lemon, quartered
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Cut larger potatoes, carrots and mushrooms in half lengthwise, then put all the vegetables in a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle them with about a teaspoon of olive oil and unstintingly with herbes de Provence, salt and fresh-ground pepper; mix them around to coat. Arrange them in one layer in the bottom of the pan, with cut potatoes and carrots cut-side down.
3. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Squeeze the juice of two of the lemon quarters into the butter; fish out any seeds; and cook, stirring, for about a minute.
4. Stuff one squeezed lemon quarter into each hen’s cavity, then put the hens side by side, breast-side up, atop the vegetables in the pan. Drizzle the lemon butter over the hens, rubbing it around to coat the top sides, drumsticks and wings. Give hens a liberal sprinkling of herbes de Provence, salt and fresh-ground pepper. Roast for 25 minutes.
5. Turn oven down to 350 degrees. Roast about 25 minutes longer, or until the flesh of the drumsticks is soft and they can be wiggled readily in their sockets, or until juices run clear from a small, sharp knife poked into the thickest part of the breast.
6. Serve each hen with vegetables on the side, spooning some pan juices over the vegetables. Squeeze a bit of the juice of the remaining lemon quarters over the top, then use those as garnish; sprinkle each hen and vegetables with chopped Italian parsley.