Capon has graced serving tables for centuries although few people today know what it is or how to prepare it. In short, it is a rooster that was castrated as a chick to render the flesh tender and flavorful and then fattened for the table. The Greeks and Romans engaged in the practice, as did the Chinese before them.
Available at a market near you, and ready to pop in the oven.
At the turn of the 20th century, a report noted capons were universally known and appreciated in France, and other parts of Europe. In the U.S. they have been commonly consumed since the Europeans settled here, and were becoming more profitable for market by then. They were sold in the markets of Maryland by 1640, at roughly the same price as in England.
The process of caponization was achieved by, “Insert[ing] the fore finger [through a small incision], and near the middle of the body, at the distance of about three quarters of an inch from the incision, near the spine, will be found the testicles, which may very easily be removed by the thumb and finger; sew up the orifice and daub a little tar over it to keep off the flies.” Though considered a minor procedure it probably wasn’t a job for the squeamish and so by the late 19th and early 20th century the process had been considerably refined as evidenced from the following advertisement.
ROAST CAPON. If you don’t know Capon you don’t know Chicken! Nothing equals roast capon-always sweet, tender, rich, delicious. June and July hatched cockerels should be caponized now for your Christmas, Winter, and Easter dinner parties. Any surplus brings fancy prices at that season. Do not think of attempting the operation with old style, clumsy, hand-in-the-way, peek-a-boo types of tools, that are difficult to use and uncertain in results…
Dear Sir: Caponizing is a pleasure with your tools. From remover to tearing hook they are A-1 requiring only a small incision. I caponized a Leghorn cockerel weighing only 8 ounces, and he is growing fine. Haven’t lost a bird. Previously used a widely advertised set, lost many and had lots of slips. I’ll not mention names but they might be called “stung.” Your instruction book is what it should be and not an advertisement. You do not claim “a child can do it,” yet such is the case. My daughter, six and a half years old, can caponize and explain the operation to others, using correct names and terms. – Mrs. Joseph Neft, Earman, Fla, June 20, 1921. Published in American Poultry Journal. Aug. 1921.
Capon was often served with rice or peas. It was made into pasties, pilau, pie, soup, pudding, or croquettes, and it was soused, fricasseed, poached, hashed, boiled, larded, and roasted.
Richard Dolby included a receipt for capon served with chestnuts and oysters, verbatim as found in John Nott’s book dated 1723.
“Boil twelve large chestnuts till they are soft, then peel them and put them into claret wine warmed with the same number of oysters parboiled; spit the capon, and put these into the inside of the capon, and stop them in with butter, roast it before a quick fire, baste it with fresh butter, and when it begins to drip, preserve the gravy; then take half a pint of claret, put into it fifteen or twenty large chestnuts boiled, and the same number of oysters, a piece of butter and some whole pepper; stew all these together till half has stewed away; when your capon is roasted, put the gravy which you have saved into the sauce, bread the capon, place it on a dish, pour the sauce all over, and serve.”
John Nott published a receipt in 1723 in which he instructed the cook to place the fingers between the skin and flesh to loosen it, then put in between the flesh and skin a mixture of grated bacon, 2 eggs, mushroom or truffle, a little parsley, basil, and cives [chives], shred fine, salt and pepper. The cook was then to sew up the end and roast it on a spit. The ragoo to be served with it included sweet breads, livers, mushrooms, truffles, morels, artichoke bottoms, asparagus-tops in their season, a little gravy thickened with a cullis of veal and ham.
A cullis is a mixture used to thicken ragouts and soups, and to give them an agreeable taste. A capon cullis was made in this manner:
Take a roasted capon, pound it very well in a mortar, put it in a stew pan, and toss up some crusts of bread in melted bacon [fat]; and when they are very brown, put to them some mushroomes, cives, parsley, and basil, all shred very small; mix all these with your pounded capon, and make an end of dressing them over the stove; put in strong broth, and strain it.
It is only the meat you put into a cullis that gives it the name and taste; if it be for pheasants or partridges, make use of pheasants or partridges, instead of capon; do the like for woodcocks or pigeons, ducks, teal, quails, rabbits, &c. and whatsoever meat you use must be more than half roasted before you pound it to put in a cullis.
Nott’s Roast Capon with Lemon still retained the flair of medieval cuisine in that it used sweet herbs, dates and currants, mace, nutmeg, sugar, almonds, and verjuice with butter and preserved lemon.
Several 18th century cookery books instruct in preparing a capon after the French way – braising in white wine. “Take a quart of white-wine, season the capon with salt, cloves, and whole pepper, a few shallots; then put the capon in an earthen pan; you must take care it has not room to shake; up it must be covered close, and done on a slow charcoal fire.”
This Christmas a fat, perfectly seasoned, golden brown capon will take the place of last year’s roast goose on our holiday table as I set it with foods common to the era when my ancestor served as Sewer [server] at the royal tables in London. See previous posts. Blissful Meals & Merry Christmas!
– The Cook’s Dictionary. 1830. The Household Encyclopedia. 1858. Montague, Laetitia. The Housewife: Being a most Useful Assistant in all Domestic Concerns. 1785. Bozeman, John. The History of Maryland, 1633 to 1660. 1837. Baltimore. Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. 1785. London.