© 2004-2017

Patagonia Bookshelf

Ostrich Tales — an Anthology
Observations of Darwin's rhea in southern Patagonia

"At Home with the Patagonians", George C. Musters,
London 1873
In 1869, George Musters joined a group of Tehuelches, living as one of them for over a year, and subsequently writing about his experiences; his book is a valuable source of information about Tehuelche traditional lifestyle and culture. in this excerpt he explains the importance of the ostrich to the native economy, describing in detail how it is cooked and served.

[emphasis added]

The Patagonian ostriches are very swift of foot, and run with their wings closed, while the other species invariably spread theirs. The former birds also always run in a straight line, except when leaving the nest, when probably, to avoid being tracked, they run in a circuitous manner. Their plumage, that is to say the wing feathers, are an object of commerce, and fetch at present about a dollar a pound in Buenos Ayres. The marrow from the leg bones is also, I believe, of use for making pomade, and was formerly, if not at present, highly prized in Buenos Ayres. To the Indian this bird is invaluable in many ways. Besides furnishing their most favourite food, from the sinews of the leg thongs for bolas are constructed; the neck is used as a pouch for salt or tobacco; the feathers are exchanged for tobacco and other necessaries; the grease from the breast and back is tried out and secured in bags formed of the skin (taken off during the spring season, when the females, like all the Patagonian animals except the puma, are thin); the meat is more nourishing and more relished by the Indians than that of any other animal in the country, and the eggs form a staple commodity of food during the months of September, October, and November.

[...] When the hunt is finished, and the birds cut up and divided, fires are kindled, and whilst stones are heating the ostrich is plucked, the wing feathers being carefully tied together with a piece of sinew. The bird is then laid on its back and drawn ; the legs are carefully skinned down, and the bone taken out, leaving the skin; the carcase is then separated into two halves, and the backbone having been extracted from the lower half, and the meat sliced so as to admit the heated stones laid in between the sections, it is tied up like a bag, secured by the skin of the legs, with a small bone thrust through to keep all taut; this is placed on the live embers of the fire, a light blaze being kindled when it is nearly done to perfectly roast the outside meat. During the process of cooking it has to be turned frequently to ensure all parts being thoroughly cooked. When ready it is taken off the fire, and the top part being cut off and the stones extracted, the broth and meat are found deliciously cooked. The party, generally consisting of twos or fours, sit round the dish and cat the meat, sopping it in the broth. The back part, which consists nearly altogether of fat (when the ostrich is in good condition), is then divided, pieces being given to each, and reserved as tid-bits for the women and children. When the head and breast half are to be cooked, the bone is not extracted, but the wings turned inside and the breast cavity filled with heated stones, and tied up with half of the skin of the legs, which have been divided, additional pieces of meat from the legs having been placed in the breast cavity. The fat of the breast is divided amongst the party at the fireside, the owner in all cases reserving none or a very small piece for himself, as the others who are cooking at the same fire are sure to give him plenty. The cacique generally receives the largest share, or if he is not present, the greatest friends of the owner. The wing feathers are carefully taken to the toldos and stored with others for future trade. The ostrich is most thoroughly eaten; the gizzard, which is large enough to fill both hands, being carefully cooked by the insertion of a hot stone and roasted; the eyes, too, are sucked, and the tripe devoured; but when the birds are thin they are simply skinned, and the carcase left to the pumas. After the meal, concluding the hunt, is finished, a pipe is handed round, saddles are re-adjusted, and the game placed on them, and the party adjourn to the toldos, which by this time have been pitched and arranged by the women.

[end of extract]