The follies of genius are unavoidable, unpredictable and if we’re lucky just quirky. I think Victor Borge was a genius. While my standards might be modest (I think Jim Henson was a genius too) enlightenment and entertainment are always qualifications, and in those Borge shined. During his heyday he performed the world over, but maintained a homestead in New England that produced Rock Cornish game hens. I suspect he was probably amused with a business that marketed miniature chickens; imagine him asking why the Rock Cornish game hen crossed the road with a nice little keyboard riff. At any rate, Nora Ephron (the Rona Barrett of food writing) remembers that “every Rock Cornish game hen in America used to come with a little tag with Victor Borge’s name on it.” At his insistence, no doubt.
I hate to disillusion you all, but despite its rugged name a Rock Cornish game hen is nothing more than a little chicken. Poultry is big business, and millions are spent on developing and maintaining the most productive, disease-resistant and appealing varieties. The best all-around industrial chickens are either big and fast-growing or smaller and long-laying. I suspect that at some point avian agronomists were frustrated to discover that pesky genetics prevented chickens from growing only so much so fast and from ovulating only so often; otherwise we’d have Rhode Island Reds the size of collies dropping half-gallon eggs all over Stone County. (The emus didn’t work out.)
With size as a limit, the chicken scientists bent under the thumbscrews of marketing by taking another tack: Tyson Foods developed the Rock Cornish game hen in the mid-60s by cross-breeding big, fast-growing but rather spindly Plymouth Rock cocks with smaller Cornish hens, which have short, thick legs and broad, muscular breasts. The resulting variety has a briefer growing span–ten days less to the slaughterhouse than the 40-day Rocks (birds grow fast; imagine if you had been chased out of the house when you had just learned how to run). Since they were developed for meat, their marketable egg-laying capabilities are inconsiderable (too bad, right?).
Tyson marketed the game hen as an upscale product targeting people willing to pay more for something different. And it worked. Calling it a “game hen” added to its cachet, since it suggests a mix with a pheasant, a quail, a partridge or some bird with similar snob appeal. Borge, who himself had a high-brow profile, was probably enrolled as a celebrity sponsor, though I still maintain that the eccentricity of the product itself was a great draw for him personally. Yet despite my affection for the Great Dane who bridged the gap between Oliver Hardy and Stravinsky, to me the most effective marketing strategy for game hens is that they’re sealed in plastic wrap just like teeny-tiny turkeys.
Having said all that, let me add that game hens should not be shunned on account of their corporate hatching; they’re good birds, if you know how to cook them. Buy the smallest ones you can, one to a person, thaw thoroughly, trim and clean. Rub inside and out with oil, a little salt and pepper and whatever other seasonings you like (garlic and sage are always good), then roast in a slow oven until the legs are loose. Increase heat at finish to brown. In the meantime, prepare wild rice and sauté a few trimmed chicken livers per person. Serve a hen on a nest of wild rice, livers to the side, with baby limas, wilted greens and a bit of sour cream.