Marrowbones 1

Call me lazy, but I could not resist posting this old essay. This actually engendered my article in Saveur magazine, “Bone Gatherer,” which you can read here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Bone-Gatherer.

It is, perhaps, a little angrier, and I wrote it before I went to Suriname, and before I broke my hip. Saveur wisely decided that a broken femur and the jungle are far less scary than an actual break up.

Here’s the essay. There are plenty of bone recipes to follow.

Boy is beheaded, butchered, and made into soup, which is devoured to the last bone. The bone is buried in the garden and eventually exacts its revenge.

 

This is my favorite bone-and-boy tale. You probably know this story; the Brothers Grimm version is enamored by sinister German language teachers everywhere. The little boy comes home from school, fetches an apple from the apple trunk, and is decapitated when his stepmother sends the lid of the trunk flying down upon his neck. In a sadistic twist, the stepmother balances the dead boy’s head on top of his neck, secures it with a scarf, props the body up by the door for her own daughter to find. “What do you mean, he didn’t bother to say hello,” the stepmother tells the girl, “Box his ears.” The little girl slaps the boy and his head tumbles off, and she cries for the rest of the day.

“Oh mommy, I’ve boxed my brother’s head off.”

“Oh you stupid girl,” the cruel woman says.

The stepmother butchers the boy and turns him into stew, which is seasoned by the tears his sister sheds into the pot, where also, presumably, the richness of the meat is balanced by adding a few of the apples from the trunk, cut up and peeled. The father devours the brother, and the sister buries the bones in the garden. And in the Haitian version of the story, the stepmother herself is cooked, where, because she is so fat, she renders down nicely into dripping, which then, applied to the boy’s bone, makes him whole again. Delicious.

Bones are magical. In fairy tales, they can sing, turn into birds, avenge themselves on evil stepmothers, and be your brother or your lover in disguise. Maidens feed villages with a bone, a stone, and water, and giants can grind bones to make bread. The search for a bone (together with a leopard and a terrier) brings Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant together in the comedy Bringing Up Baby. In real life, bones can turn water into soup, and then turn that soup into aspic if you let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. In my opinion, the meat cooked closest to the bone is the most intense. I love the smell of a ham hock turning into caramel in the oven, and the aroma of a chicken carcass simmering in a pot overnight. In short, bones are clever and dynamic; and frankly, I’d rather kiss a bone than a frog. Besides, bones are sexy – they make whatever it is in between look so much more appetizing. The last time I looked in the mirror, I mourned the fact that I had no shoulder blades to bite.

 

I am not a frugal person – ringing up two hundred dollars at your local New York market for a handful of haricot verts is my style. Still, there’s a delight you get from getting bones from a butcher, when he wraps them for you in twine, and hands them over to you for free. It puts you in the secret society of the bone elite. It demonstrates that you have a healthy respect for an entire animal; furthermore, it proves that you have the culinary gumption to be able to coax flavor out of nothing. Just witness the twinkle from your butcher when you ask him, (for inevitably, butchers, like sommeliers, are still overwhelmingly male) “Oh, can I just have that neck that you’re not going to use, that tail, that hoof, that still very succulent shin from the same animal whose meat you just sold to the lovely lady in the chinchilla for twenty-three dollars a pound?”

Let the poor plebs have their filet mignon; I’ll take the knuckle. Most butchers hate to see a good thing go to waste.

Believe me, once you’ve established yourself as a bone lover, you will also find yourself getting the best cuts of meat. Butchers will save for you the best chop, will tell you on the sly what has been sitting out for the most of the week. They’ll use the meat slicer for your carpaccio and grind everything for you fresh, and, if you waltz in there determined to spend your month’s earnings on a crown roast for twenty, they’ll bully you into getting the 4.99 a pound shoulder because it is the best thing that they have. Butchers, like most self-respecting individuals, have a healthy disdain for people who don’t like bones.

Bone-haters: you know the type I am talking about. They will happily guzzle their chicken tender cutlets and water-packed processed ham, but a roast chicken will send them into paroxysms, a rack of lamb will induce shock, and a suckling pig will put them in danger of a coma. These individuals are the ones I like calling the boneless, skinless types. Even when I was a vegetarian, they would make me furious. Often, I forget their no-bone preferences; eschewing pork tenderloin for a duck roasted with the head still attached. I while away the rest of the dinner party sucking on the beak with a dreamy look. Then I’ll follow up by putting on a puppet show with lobsters who believe that they are in a sauna for a spa weekend.

The boneless, skinless contingent can’t bear bones because they don’t want to be reminded that something had to die before making it onto the plate. In my mind, this shows the grossest disrespect for the animal that was executed to feed them in the first place. These people who like their all of their food to be the same texture, peas indistinguishable from the meat, which is indistinguishable from the mashed potatoes; they inhabit a world that is beige, blonde and bland; a world that I would like to call Betty Crocker in a box, who believe in happy endings without the mayhem and horror that so often leads up to it. They believe that Bambi’s mother was saved by the ASPCA, and now lives in a condominium in Menlo Park. One such person – a dear friend – allowed her boyfriends to take her to movies and buy her chocolates, as long as they didn’t try to take off her flannel pajamas at the end of the night. It goes without saying that boneless men are almost as desirable as vegetarians, as substantial as paper, who faint at the sight of blood. Since girlhood I have always preferred men with more spine; Edward Rochester was my girlhood ideal, full of conflict and thunderstorms. Then there was Orson Welles who played him in the movie of Jane Eyre – well fed, an eloquent voice full of cholesterol, and like the best pieces of meat, not immediately the most pleasing on the eye.

I first fell in love with a bone in a picture – a photograph in the 1970s edition of Julia Child and Company of a pan of veal bones for onion soup that glistened in their carrot bed. My second love was for the pig knuckles that my grandfather would stew. These I would pick through, carefully discarding the meat for the skin and bone. My third love was for a marrow bone. It was one of those cafés next to London’s Russell Square Tube station, where the waiters had grubby shirt fronts, spoke with dubious “Italian accents.” That evening I ate fresh sardines with my hands, grilled until crisp and sprinkled with lemon. Then came my bone, perched on a hill of sunshine colored rice, which was surrounded by an unimportant moat of veal and sauce. I had had ossobuco a number of times, but never my own bone, which was capped with its own silver spoon.

 

The man with whom I fell in love loved bones and skin and everything in-between. He was, in short, a bone-in man, as teeming with blood cells as Edward Rochester. He was big, broad across the chest and the shoulders, with a voice like a thunderstorm and dark, curling, overlong hair like a pirate’s, and I fell in love with him one autumn night after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, when he helped me strip the two chickens that I had roasted earlier. We nibbled at the crisp wing tips, and let them simmer with the remnants of Chablis and champagne while we sipped scotch and watched Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. With a rolling pin, he did what I had never done – he crushed the chicken bones until they were paste and wrung out the juices through a sieve. The memory of him is forever entangled by that apricot aroma, which seduced us and made us hungry again by the time the stock had reduced. We brought it up in bowls without spoons, dipping and stirring stale bread until it was dripping; then we fed each other until dawn, as we slowly undressed and became acquainted with each other, ribcages and all. When I think of him, I swallow, and the flavor of long simmered stock rises to my mouth, savory as money and almost as enticing. He was my chicken soup man, but of a chicken soup that was made from pulverizing flesh and bone – far removed from anything that your grandmother might serve you.

Several years passed, and I decided to take him to one of my favorite restaurants. I loved the place with my heart, and wanted to have dinner with the man that I loved just as much, if not more, because he had crushed my chicken bones and turned them into stock. You probably know the place – it is a restaurant in the East Village, which for me is the quintessence of New York winter nights – a space the size of a typical Manhattan apartment, where everyone huddles around an open kitchen and drinks red wine while their elbows battle for room. The menu is comfort food to everyone who loves to eat – Triscuits and sardines, radishes with butter, sausages. But I go there for the marrow, slightly blackened from the oven, and served with toast and parsley salad.

The marrow is why you come to this place; to be relished with a glass of Syrah and a good friend, or sometimes alone with a book. They are sprinkled with coarse salt and roasted. Rap the bone sharply with the side of your knife and the marrow slips out, then spread it on burnt toast and crunch. Garnishing it is parsley, tossed with lemon juice, and astringent shavings of raw onion. Plenty of women have craved this prickly herb and got in trouble: Rapunzel’s mother ate a garden full of it and had to give up her daughter to a witch. Green leaves paired with charcoaled bone and cooked blood – it is a bit of fresh earth in Manhattan.

Despite the winter weather and my usual penniless state, I was feeling rich and dazzling – dressed in skimpy gold Prada shorts with a wallet was crammed with twenties. I was with a good girlfriend whom I was going to buy dinner because she had bought me the shorts. We were both waiting for my man.

Unfortunately, he had been drinking all afternoon and his hand shook and his forehead was gray and dotted with perspiration. The first thing he said when he opened the menu is “Ha, well, this is a bit dear.” Since he regularly paid twenty dollars for a martini, I ignored him.

He glared around at his surroundings, and  at his lamb shank, when it came.

“This lamb shank,” he announced, “is absolute shit.”

He was a bone-in man from the Upper East Side, and he wore a cravat around his neck. He liked the smell of dollar bills and whiskey, his men in neckties and his women in dresses and thigh-high stockings. (I was not allowed to wear tights in the winter.) He expected people to fawn on him; he had an expatriate English man’s assumption that his accent made him a celebrity. My restaurant was a downtown joint where smocks and jeans were favored, and where women who didn’t look excessively interested in the male sex. In after thought it was cruel for me to bring him here. I was taking him away to a place so far from his natural home – it was like taking a toddler to Mars. Correction: it was like taking a 42 year old Englishman who lived on Madison Avenue to a Mars that was populated by anti-establishment lesbians who really could not give a hoot about how many double-barreled names he knew and whether or not he had ever met the Queen.

“It’s absolute shit,” he repeated.

His comments were favored by cool glances.

“Well don’t eat the shank then,” I responded, and applied myself to my marrow.

Unfortunately, my marrow, though thick and juicy looking, was empty. I tried to tease every last molecule on my plate, thinking to myself that one bone does not a meal make.

Suddenly, my man sprung up. “Goddam it,” he shouted, and summoned the hostess. “We have been trying to be polite, and this woman behind us has been edging her chair into this young lady’s back.” He gestured to our friend. “And now,” he yelled, “we have no room.”

The hostess apologized. I focused on my parsley. Despite his complaints, my lover shoveled the last of his lamb shank down his throat. “This,” he observed, “was not worth twenty-three dollars.” The waitress meanwhile observed me contemplating sorrowfully the little bit of marrow on the plate.

“That’s the problem,” she assured me, “You never know with bones. Some bones are generous, others not so much – they all look good, but you never know what you’re going to get until it comes out of the oven.” She pauses. “I’ll get you another.”

My man was stood up again to cross the room and confront a woman at the bar. The hostess pleaded with him to sit down. My girlfriend ushered him by the arm outside for a cigarette. When the door shut behind him, the room stirred and became warm again.

The woman at the bar gave me a hug. The man next to me said loudly to his companion, “Darling, this is the best merguez I have ever tasted. Isn’t it just simply the best?” He tapped me on the shoulder, and pushed the plate in front of my nose. “Honey, you have to try this. It is out of this world.” I shook my head. “Eat,” he said, flourishing his fork.

Then my waitress came out with another marrow. It was the largest bone I had ever seen, as festive as a cake, with the spoon springing upright in the center like a candle.

“Oh you didn’t have to,” I told her.

“Oh yes I did,” she replied.

I banged my knife sharply against the bone’s edge and the marrow spilled out, gold and quivering, so much more than I could handle. The aroma was overwhelming. I mopped a piece of toast around the edges of my plate and bit, relishing the richness and the char as it scraped against my gums. I ate and ate and the marrow did not diminish. Outside, I saw my lover standing on the street wreathed in plumes of smoke. I turned to my two new friends, and shared my bones and bread with them.

 

I still love bones. Every January, I duplicate Child’s soup and end up sucking on the bones as soon as they emerge from the oven; wasting, in the process, the seven pounds of onions that I have thinly sliced, and ending up with a soup that tastes of water and cheese. I make osso buco at least three times a month but only have an appetite for the soft center. When I had my wisdom teeth pulled, I used it as an excuse to wander my parents’ Connecticut kitchen in socks and sweatpants, sublimely dopey with painkillers; and also to duplicate Brillat Savarin’s broth for invalids with a veal knuckle, spring water, and the pulverized carcasses of elderly pigeons. Lacking pigeons, I substituted several quails, and fortified the entire thing with port, which resulted in a hundred dollar broth which I sipped at leisure. Bones are strange things – even though the bones themselves are free, the effort you must put into them makes them very, very dear. Just the bone is not enough. It needs onions, spring water, the meat of wild birds, and port to be nourishing.

Marrow is our center – it is blood and core. Sometimes the brain is too cerebral and the heart is too sentimental, whereas bones are our structure, our fabric, the most concrete element of our identity, the thing itself. Moreover they protect our more sensitive organs – heart, liver, lungs, stomach, and brain. And apparently marrow is high in monounsaturated fats – which is crucial to preventing cardiovascular disease, so while decadent on the tongue and the waist, eating marrow prevents our hearts from stopping.

But too much marrow, as we know, can make you sick, and insane – especially if you eat it from a diseased steer. Spend a couple of years with a bone-in man, and slightly more spineless men begin to have their charm – like Bertie Wooster, for example, who spends his time running away from firm ladies. While a bone-in man would be the first to save you from a fire, he’d be just as likely to yank you out by the hair of an innocuous negotiation with your accountant. Or, in some cases, from a meal of marrow and toast points in a neighborhood restaurant. Like bones themselves, some bone-in men may look substantial, but after a while in the oven, yield a stingy center. Sometimes, a good bone is just preferable to the man himself.

My man refused to pay for his meal, and I was embarrassed, because I did not have enough cash to pay for my girlfriend’s dinner, as I had so extravagantly promised. Later that night, after she and I had paid the bill, my lover pocketed the tip.

Women betray men for kingdoms and family and God; me, I betrayed him for a bone. I am not a fairy tale woman; I do not believe in weeping seven bottles of tears and staying silent for seven years and wearing out seven pairs of iron shoes. So once upon a time, I had a man. I swapped him for a bone, and came to a happy end.

Once upon a time a girl and a boy fell in love. One day a witch turned the boy into a marrow-bone. She brought the bone to the table and said, “Here is your beloved, you must perform these tasks if you want him back.” The girl wept and seasoned the bone with her tears. But the tasks were so difficult, and the aroma of marrow was so appetizing, and so finally, the girl took her spoon and scraped off a little from the center, thinking that her beloved would forgive her. Time passed, the greedy girl helped herself to more, saying to herself that it would give her energy for the things that lay ahead. Before she knew it, she had finished the bone and sat licking her spoon. She had no beloved but no more tasks either.

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