I’ve always loved meat on the bone—spicy, messy chicken wings; pan-fried pork chops; the beef ribs my mom used to bake, coated in bread crumbs and mustard butter—but I never really thought about bones until a recent trip to South America forced me to take them seriously. I had signed on as a camp cook for a birding expedition to a remote part of Central Suriname. We were helicoptered onto a patch of bare rock several thousand feet above sea level, a place where, we were told, no human had been before. We were surrounded by jungle filled, not only with birds, but venomous snakes. I was assured by my companions that any resident jaguars would mistake me for a small mammal and, hence, lunch. Torrential rains flooded camp every night, and our waterlogged satellite phone died, leaving us with no contact to the outside world.
It was a feral life. I hacked through bamboo with a machete, washed my hair in a stream. I cooked with peanut butter, rice, and from time to time, the roasted carcasses of the birds that we had collected. I had learned the weird but beautiful art of preparing specimens, a painstaking process in which you separate the bird’s skin from its flesh while leaving much of the skeleton intact. We had set up bird-checking nets a bit higher on the mountain, and I would check these while my mates were out exploring. The rocks above camp were slippery with moss and rain. I have been clumsy since I was a child, but in the mountains, I got very good at falling—indeed, I became kind of addicted to it.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after my return to the States, when I took a spectacular spill on some hotel stairs, that my falls on the mountain came back to me with a vengeance. I found myself in excruciating pain, with a broken hip, and doctors were telling me that my left femur—the leg bone between the pelvis and knee—was so messed up, it would have to be replaced. I’d be off my feet for months. According to the older Chinese women in my life, I was supposed to eat a lot of bones, in keeping with the traditional Far Eastern belief that you should eat whatever body part is ailing—owl eyes for myopia, pig lungs for emphysema. Condemned as I was to crutches and virtual house arrest, the old beliefs started to make sense.
Besides, despite my own fragility, bones are powerful things. In ancient China, they were used to make prophecies. In the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, a girl carries her parents’ bones around in a sack, where they clank and groan until a spot is located for their burial. In my favorite fairy tale, the bone of a murdered man is carved into a flute, which plays a song that reveals the killer. There is a restlessness in bones, a personality that endures long after the owner has passed on.
I began my convalescence by making a stock from beef necks and veal knuckles the color of old lace. When I saw them—beautiful, haunting—I was reminded of the animals from which they came. When you look at a steak you don’t necessarily think of a steer, but the neck bones, shaped like giant jacks, conjured the massiveness of the animal and how it moved.
Nothing demonstrates the elemental magic of bones more aptly than a stock. Any Chinese child with the flu will know the taste of pork bone and ginger stock, hot, heady, and healing. Korean babies are weaned on sullongtang, the milk-white soup made from beef bones simmered for anywhere from 12 hours to days on end. The French chef Auguste Escoffier claimed that a great kitchen is founded on great stock; serious cooks approach their stocks with shamanic intensity. It’s a matter of extraction. Protein, sugar, and fat break down during cooking and are released from the meat and bones into the water in which they steep. And while the meat contributes to flavor, the bones, loaded with collagen, impart body and a velvety mouth-feel.
Home from the hospital, staring at the stove in my apartment’s small kitchen, revisiting old volumes on my shelves—the fairy-tale collections and cookbooks and photo albums—I began to entertain a romantic notion of the perfect broth, based on the memory of a brodo I had when I was 11 years old on a chilly March evening in Venice. Limpid, sweet, and nuanced, it was as fortifying as wine or tea—a rich yet balanced infusion of meat, bone, and aromatics. Broth has always been part of my cooking repertoire, but I’ve frequently allowed mine to boil because I could not be bothered to watch the pot. If there’s one thing all the cookbooks I now pored over agreed on, it’s that should your broth ever so much as begin to boil, you should throw it away. During boiling, particles of fat and protein are agitated and become suspended in the liquid; a boiled broth is murky and greasy.
In pajamas and slightly stoned from daytime television and Percocet, I had plenty of time on my hands—time enough, finally, to heed the experts. I set my stove to its lowest heat and prepared to wait a very long time: By all accounts, the water—and beef bones and turkey wings, carrots, onion, garlic, celery, and bay leaf—would take more than an hour just to come up to temperature. I left the pot on the stove overnight and all the next day. A brodo should barely simmer; several seconds should pass between bubbles. At a very low and constant heat, unwanted impurities released from the meat and bones will coagulate and rise to the top or cling to the sides of the pot, and they can be easily skimmed off.
When at last I strained the broth, the result was pure alchemy: a clear, golden liquid with a perfume much greater than the sum of its parts—there were notes of caramel and nutmeg, butter and clove. It was one of the most thrilling moments I’ve experienced as a cook. How often do we manage to duplicate perfectly a romantic notion? I garnished my first bowl with curls of Parmesan and sipped it slowly, inhaling the sweet steam.
Of course, these days it’s trendy to be into bones, not only wings and ribs, but chicken necks and ham hocks and shanks. Much as many chefs can now be found flaunting their affinity for bones, they’re still a fantastic bargain: At my local butcher, marrow bones go for $2.99 a pound. This is true of all sorts of bones and bony cuts. Sometimes, if a customer orders a noisette—the meaty eye of the rack of lamb—my butcher will even give me the bony remainder for free.
Years ago, the same butcher had taught me how to french a rack of lamb, a technique that involves scraping some of the meat away with a long, thin knife to lay bare a fringe of elegantly curved bones. Now, laid up and armed with a boning knife, I found the taxidermy skills I’d acquired in Suriname useful. I started frenching everything in sight, and was alarmingly good at it. I turned chicken wings into chicken lollipops and frenched itty-bitty rabbit racks. I found out that the technique also worked wonderfully with shank—the length of bone and meat just below the knee—by far my favorite part of any animal.
Lamb shanks braised low and slow, until the meat is tender and the bones release their marrow to enrich the braising liquid, are always marvelous served with something starchy to soak up the sauce—polenta, mashed potatoes, risotto—but I like them best when they’re set, gigantic and resplendent, on a bed of white bean puree. Frenching the shanks makes the presentation that much more spectacular, a hunk of meat beckoning at the end of a length of parchment-colored bone. When I tried it, I browned the shanks thoroughly before putting them in the oven, and I made sure to turn the meat every half hour or so for an evenly caramelized exterior. Cooking a shank in this way is virtually foolproof due to its high ratio of bone to meat; because the bone absorbs heat, the meat immediately surrounding it cooks slowly and is the most succulent. And let us again not forget the collagen that attaches the meat to the bone. Over the course of cooking it turns to gelatin—a special treat to enjoy once you’ve dispensed with the meat.
Then there’s marrow. When the creamy, voluptuous stuff is scooped from the bone’s hollow, it can be stirred into a sauce to add lushness. It is the best part of an osso buco–that’s Italian for “bone with a hole”—and once you’ve stripped the meat from the long-braised veal shank and devoured it, inside that bone you’ll find a final treat, a secret store, best coaxed out with a long, slender spoon.
To eat marrow—the tissue that produces new blood—is to indulge in an act that treads the boundary between the rude and the refined. There was, in fact, a time not too long ago when my supermarket was selling marrow only as a dog treat. But once I felt well enough to put on a dress and hail a cab, marrow was the first thing I sought. Together with my new hip—a man-made bone fashioned from enameled metal—I headed to a Manhattan restaurant called Ai Fiori.
If eating marrow is typically a messy, primal, hands-on affair, at Ai Fiori, chef Michael White has resolved the issue by halving the bone lengthwise. For the dish he calls Mare e Monte (“sea and mountain” in Italian, a play on surf and turf), White lines the halved bone with celery root puree, nestles in overlapping disks of steamed scallop and black truffle, lays out a layer of marrow on top, and then broils the whole thing. It was silk on my tongue, marrow I could eat with a knife and fork, a subtle balance of flavors and textures—and yet the white bone on the plate retained an echo of the visceral and the wild. It conjured what lurked in the shadows on that mountaintop where I fell so many times, and it evoked my mending body ensconced in that gleaming haute dining room, my crutch still at my side.
With bones, in other words, the possibilities for reincarnation are endless. A joint becomes a stock, which then becomes the base for pot au feu, or another rich, meaty stew. I’ve even taken to roasting cuts from animals on racks made from their bones, a roast beef on a bed of marrow bones. It’s culinary id. At some point, though, my fridge started to look like a boneyard, my hair smelled like veal, and I began to long for another life, one away from the stove and skipping on both legs. Still, I am grateful for the chance that being hobbled for a while presented me: to linger in the kitchen while things cooked slowly; then to grip the bones in my fist, use my teeth to strip the meat, and quietly relish the savagery—and the delicacy—of it all.