Smothered Marsh Hens

In her foreword to the University of South Carolina’s 1976 facsimile edition of Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking, Elizabeth Hamilton nonchalantly noted: “This fishy bird presents a problem, but cooked properly and served on points of toast with broiled mushrooms and cheney briar it is enough to set the most fastidious of gourmets talking for years. If you can’t find cheney briar, fresh asparagus will do.”

If you are not a Sandlapper, you’ve probably never heard of marsh hens or cheney briar. The bird is the clapper rail, Rallus longirostris, of our salt marshes. Its loud clatter and low, slow flight makes it an easy target for gunners, but laws forbid the use of motors on boats when hunting the marsh hen. Marsh hunting is quintessentially Lowcountry: one must have a keen eye to discern the skinny, well-camouflaged bird among the marsh grasses; be acutely familiar with the tides, shoals, and currents of those backwaters; and be willing to persevere for hours in biting autumn winds. Although marsh hens are chicken-size, they only weigh about ½ pound when dressed, and the breasts are small. Mrs. Hamilton warns, “You don’t pluck a marsh hen, you peel it.” The birds are then soaked in a vinegar solution or parboiled to remove the fishy taste.

Cheney briar, or greenbrier, is the young shoots of various species of smilax, a member of the lily family of plants. Generally considered pests, the plants scramble over thickets and trees, entangling and strangling everything in their path. William Bartram, traveling in Carolina in the 1770s, found Indians crushing the roots to make a gelatinlike thickener for their stews. More intriguing are the asparaguslike tender young shoots, which are sometimes offered for sale at the Charleston Farmers Market.

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  • 4 marsh hens, skinned
  • 1 cup unbleached (all-purpose) flour salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 medium Vidalia, red, or other sweet onions, sliced
  • 1 bouquet garni: several parsley and thyme sprigs tied in cheesecloth with a bay leaf and a celery rib
  • 2 cups chicken stock or water


Place the birds in a large pot, cover with salted water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook just long enough for the blood to cook out and for a fork to be inserted into the flesh easily, about 10 minutes. Remove the birds from the water and drain well.

Season the flour with salt and pepper, then toss the birds in the flour, coating them well. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat, add the birds, and brown well on all sides. Remove the birds and set aside, reduce the heat to very low, and add the onions. Cover the pot and let the onions cook very slowly for about an hour, until they are almost totally melted.

Add the bouquet garni, the birds, and the stock and stir everything together well, covering the birds with onions. Cover and cook for another hour over very low heat. Remove the cover. If the sauce is too thin, brown some of the leftover flour in a frying pan, then add a little of the sauce to the pan, whisking well. Return the roux to the pot and mix in well. If the sauce is too thick, thin with a little milk or cream. You can run the smothered birds under the broiler, if desired, before serving them hot over steaming hot white rice, with a side dish of steamed and buttered cheney briar or asparagus.