It's good to be the Squab King, but it isn't easy.
For one thing, hardly anyone knows that the "squab" part refers to delicate young pigeons, plucked and processed before the exertion of flying can toughen their butter-soft breast muscles.
"I'll tell people at parties I'm the Squab King," says Gary Carpenter, who tosses off the title with a grain of salt, "and they'll say, 'The what, the what king?' I've even met some chefs at high-caliber restaurants who don't have a clue."
Sitting in the unheated office of his idyllic little spread near Ojai, Carpenter piles on the kind of laments familiar to growers of everything from cows to cabbage: The market is fickle. Nagging diseases can chew away at your profit. If you're not careful, competition from inferior goods can eventually nudge you off the nation's dinner plate and onto the compost pile of obscurity.
A couple of mousetraps sit on the floor and 11 pairs of knee-high rubber boots--essential garb in the bird business--stand on a rack, awaiting action. Nearby, you can hear the honeyed murmur of some 16,000 pigeons--a vast, otherworldly chorus of coos as sleep-inducing as a New Age meditation tape.
A lanky man with a sardonic wit, Carpenter has been living off the fat of the squab for all of his 58 years. For three generations, his family has bred the avian morsels, selling them to high-toned eateries back when only the most benighted hayseed would wrinkle his brow and ask: "The what? The what king?"
Roasted squab on wilted watercress was the seventh of 11 sumptuous courses the night the Titanic went down. Squab teased the palates of moguls and movie stars; Carpenter's father and grandfather serviced such elegant establishments as Ciro's and Romanoff's, where, Gary Carpenter recalls, "even the garbage cans smelled wonderful."
But times have changed. In 1965, the Cornish game hen--a hybrid chicken introduced by poultry giant Tyson--started replacing the more expensive and difficult-to-prepare squab even at the finer establishments. "A terrible fraud," insists Carpenter, pointing out that Cornish game hen is, after all, only chicken.
Today, the recession is doing no favors for breeders of a delicacy that can hit the $30 range on menus of upscale restaurants. Even worse, cheaper birds raised in Canada are clipping the wings of their American counterparts, said Robert Shipley, president of Squab Producers of California, a cooperative of about 75 members.
"It's not a robust market right now," said Shipley, whose Modesto office sits at the center of the state's squab industry. "At high-end places in San Francisco and New York, we've seen a real downturn in demand."
While the tiny pigeons still star at a number of well-known gourmet restaurants, most of Carpenter's birds are trucked to wholesalers in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Through them, he has managed to scratch a sizable niche, selling to Asian restaurants throughout Southern California.
"As the population has changed, we've benefited," said Carpenter, one of the state's largest independent squab producers. Typically, California producers have flocks only about 10% the size of his, according to industry sources.
Walking through rows of wood-and-chicken-wire coops, Carpenter checks on his massive brood. Here, he scrutinizes a worker's notes on breeders' productivity; there, he gently lifts a cooing, fist-sized ball of feathers.
"Monday," he says. "This one will be ready on Monday."
These pigeons aren't the winged rats that carpet-bomb the cityscape, or the flying heroes that once flapped their way through enemy gunfire with urgent messages. A squab's job is just to be born, to sit, and to accept food regurgitated from its parents' beaks. After 28 days, the fledgling is ready for anything--especially, say, a bed of mixed greens and a sun-dried blueberry vinaigrette.
Seven years ago, one of Carpenter's birds achieved immortality--or the closest a squab can get to it--with its leading role in what GQ magazine deemed one of the world's top 10 meals.
John Downey, chef and proprietor of Downey's restaurant in Santa Barbara, still serves the dish--squab roasted with cloves of garlic, thyme and braised mustard greens.
"I try to achieve a perfect medium-rare for the breast and legs," Downey says. "If it's in the well-done range, you're talking about an entirely different piece of food."
Carpenter didn't set out to be a third-generation squab man. A folk singer by avocation, he had planned a career as a music agent. But a diagnosis of diabetes in his last year of college convinced him that he'd stay healthier with a physically active job in the family business.
It was started in 1921 by his grandfather, physician Edwin Carpenter. Fascinated by the science of genetics, he eventually quit medicine to breed the perfect squab--hardy, broad-breasted and quick to multiply. Edwin Carpenter failed in his quest, but a friend and rival, physician G.M. Hubbell, succeeded.
Today, Gary Carpenter says, the birds in his flock are the only ones descended from Hubbell's marvelous hybrids, despite claims to the contrary from other squab ranchers.
Each week, he kills and plucks 1,000 delectable, month-old pigeons, sending them from his shaded dell off the Casitas Pass to their destiny at Chinese pleasure palaces and other fine eateries from San Francisco to Hollywood..
Meanwhile, their parents, who mate for life, breed like crazy. When their reproductive urge fades in about 12 years, their fate is clear.
"It's soup," Carpenter says.
'I'll tell people at parties I'm the Squab King,
and they'll say, "The what, the what king?" '