Symbols of beauty and elegance since ancient Greece, swans are considered untouchable to most people. The idea of killing a swan for food likely fills you with revulsion and the moral indignation usually reserved for domesticated animals, like cats or dogs.
We’re not so squeamish about chicken, turkey, pigeon, or goose; even emu regularly appears on menus at quirky burger restaurants. In general, we eat a bunch of intelligent, adorable animals, so what separates the species treated with reverence from the ones fried and eaten from a bucket? Where’s the cygnet combo-meal? Where’s my swan McNuggets?
If the reaction of my friends when I mentioned I was writing this article is anything to go by, there is an overwhelming resistance to the idea of eating swan. The idea is so universally repugnant that accusations of swan theft and consumption have been used as slurs against Eastern European immigrants in the U.K. by right wing newspapers, even if the reports were complete nonsense.
According to food historian Ivan Day, it has not always been frowned upon to eat our long-necked feathered friends. A harrowing recipe from the Victorian Handbook for Housewives recommended not only eating swan, but fattening up cygnets from birth to be consumed as teenagers. “This splendid dish, worthy of a prince's table, [is] a capital and magnificent Christmas dish,” the 1870 journal claims. The recipe suggests removing cygnets from their parents, fattening them up with grass and barley, then roasting them on a spit, garnished with turnips decoratively carved into tiny swans. A 1300 French cookbook, Le Viandier, includes a recipe for roast swan, while a 1685 cookbook used in 17th century England and colonial era America recommends a “swan pye” as a course in a festive banquet.
It was fairly common for the aristocracy to chow down on swan for centuries — including the Royal Family. This leads me on to the first explanation anyone could muster: We don’t eat swan because the Queen owns them (and she’s the only one who’s allowed to eat one).
This sounds like utter horseshit, but it is technically true. Swans used to belong almost exclusively to the monarchy and landed gentry. In 1482, the monarchy introduced a law that prohibited the keeping of swans to anyone other than the wealthy or the Royal Family, so none of us peasants could get our grubby forks on them. The birds were marked, or “upped” on their beaks to denote which family they belonged to and all mute swans without an upping were automatically drafted into the Queen’s swan army.
Food historian Samantha Bilton explained that unlike wild animals that belong to nobody beside Mother Nature, the possession of swans criminalized their meat: “If a peasant were to kill one [a swan] on a noble’s land he would effectively have been poaching and committing a crime, which in turn would have merited a severe punishment.” Once the aristocracy got bored of overblown banquets serving swan and animals shoved up other animals, they fell quickly out of favour. It’s no longer considered treason to eat them, but swans — and all wild birds — are considered a protected species, so in the U.K. it’s still illegal to chow down on one.
Bilton hypothesized that aside from trendsetting Lords and Ladies, another reason why swan meat never caught on was due to them being hard to cook. She explained that swans “had a reputation for being ‘fishy’ unless killed when fairly young after being fattened on oats,” which certainly fits with the horrific Handbook for Housewives recipe. The emergence of tastier, uglier and cheaper birds like guinea fowl and turkey in the 16th century also helped swan slide off out of the human food chain, she said.
While this might explain why we don’t eat swan in a practical sense, it doesn’t explain why they are afforded this deity-like level of admiration. Unlike the U.K., in the US it’s perfectly legal to hunt swan if you have the right permits — but people still don’t eat them.
Recently, I went to the park and spent half an hour watching ducklings waddling around their mother; it was a nice afternoon. I’ve also eaten duck smothered in hoisin sauce and stuffed into wraps, which was also a nice afternoon. This cognitive dissonance is something all meat eaters share — it’s how we justify eating living things by deceiving ourselves, sometimes without realising it.
To understand why this is, I spoke to Dr Steve Loughnan, Professor of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. In 2014 he wrote The Psychology of Eating Animals, a research paper that sought to explain why we take one species for a walk and another attends bovine university — a concept called the “meat paradox.”
The meat paradox is our mind’s way of being able to coo over cute dogs on Instagram while enjoying a plate of buffalo wings. Meat eaters falsely attribute lesser intelligence to animals that society has categorized as “food animals” — cows, pigs, chickens, etc. We give higher intelligence and moral worth to animals in non-food categories, allowing us to love them instead of slaughtering them. The study revealed that participants who had recently consumed meat were more likely to rate the intelligence of “food animals” as lower than those who had not, theoretically to kid ourselves into feeling less guilty about eating them.
Loughnan explained that “biologically, there is obviously not much difference between a swan and, say, a duck or a goose. The line which says one is edible and one is not is thus arbitrary — ducks and geese belong to the ‘food’ category and swans belong to the ‘wildlife’ category.”
On the subject of swans, the categorization away from “food animal” was performed for us by England’s historic nobility and carried over to the US through colonization, which explains our modern unease around eating them. Certain Native American communities in the U.S. hunted and ate swans before the influence of Western colonisers — mainly trumpeter swans indigenous to North America. Kathleen Wall, colonial food expert at Plimouth Planation, explained that most recipes for swan were carried over from England, rather than created in the US. As the practice of eating swans was held for the nobility, swan consumption failed to catch on with new settlers, failing off the map long before it did in the UK. A 1637 publication The New English Canaan stated that swan meat wasn’t popular: "the flesh is not much demand of the inhabitants.”
The image of a lonely swan, searching fruitlessly for its butchered partner would surely make even the most obnoxious “bacon is my personality” meat-bro think twice.
I caught up with Hal Herzog, psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. He explained that this categorization shift by the rich has filtered down into mainstream culture — and culture ultimately dictates what we eat, and why. “In Muslim and Hindu nations, dogs are not eaten because they are despised and considered ‘unclean,’” he gave as an example. “In Western cultures, dogs are not eaten because they are loved.”
That said, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that attitudes towards eating this untouchable species could change. A few years ago, Modern Farmer broached the idea of reintroducing swans to the menu as a method of reducing thousands of rampaging birds in Michigan and New York. This may sound like a severe solution, but mute swans are notorious for disrupting the ecosystems and habitats of fellow wild birds, not to mention aggression against humans.
Herzog explained how quickly the rules around animal consumption can shift: “The example I use in my book is water buffalo, which went from tabooed to edible among the Tharu people in Nepal over a mere decade.” In the U.S., the influence of Japanese cuisine and culture has seen “the rapid transformation of raw fish from disgusting to a delicacy, in roughly one generation.”
Loughnan also believes that changes from one category to another are possible, and that these boundaries have shifted before: “Horses, for example, used to be tools, entertainment, and food in the U.K., whereas today they are strictly entertainment.” While food animals can change category, Loughnan was less convinced that swan could ever re-enter our dinner tables: “It seems to be the most powerful global trend is towards meat-replacements…I think it’s unlikely we’ll start eating swans any time soon.” If culinary predictions are to be believed, it’s more likely we’ll be adding insects to the food category in the future before swans, as if we’re chowing down on protein blocks aboard the Snowpiercer.
Finding a chef who’d be prepared to even talk about cooking swan proved difficult, with radio silence or polite refusal from restaurants across Washington D.C., New York, and Australia. I finally managed to speak to a chef at Marrow in Detroit, who explained that even if the demand for swan was there, it’s unlikely she’d cook it: “[it’s] less to do with culture and more to do with practicality and flavor. Animals like swans that produce few eggs (less than 10 a year)... [they] are far less practical than chickens or rabbits which reproduce often and with little rearing after the fact. And if swan is anything like goose, the meat is probably a bit greasy and tough.”
Perhaps one of the prevailing reasons swans escape the butcher’s knife is simply aesthetics — they are beautiful, elegant creatures, a lot prettier to look at than your average chicken. Swans are also one of the only animals that mate for life (or, at least, a very long time). The image of a lonely swan, searching fruitlessly for its butchered partner would surely make even the most obnoxious “bacon is my personality” meat-bro think twice.
Would I eat a swan? I’d like to say no, but it’s impossible to truly know. If attitudes shifted, the meat paradox within my weak and impressionable brain might kick in, and I’d end up wolfing down oat-stuffed cygnet before I knew what hit me, heartbroken swans be damned.