Ahh… January. The holiday season is behind us. The frenzy of sugar and glitter and dishes piled high into the night—that was last year. We have rejoiced and now we begin anew. Here in the northern latitudes, January brings a crisp, refreshing cold that stills trees, sends furry mammals underground, and whisks December’s extravagance from our lives. We vow to start our days with yoga, end with poetry, and parent throughout with calm, sure strides and even tones. We have moved on.
But that break with our past is never so clean. Vestiges of clutter and commitment, of our former messy lives, persist. That once-urgent email bobs at the bottom of the inbox. Last term’s report cards, filed with holiday coloring sheets and concert fliers, need unearthing, signing, discussing. There are small, concrete reminders too: a single ornament hook retrieved from the couch cushions; a wayward holiday card that arrives all crumpled and flustered after the event. For me, December has always lingered through January in the most elemental way: as bones.
Every holiday season of my childhood, after a huge holiday meal followed by days of hot turkey sandwiches, cold turkey sandwiches, and at least one turkey strata, my mother would wrap a great hull of bones in plastic wrap and again in several plastic grocery bags. That odd-shaped, store logo-emblazoned package would be tucked behind ice cube trays and bread at the back of the freezer.
It would be easy to forget the bones of last year, to search for new recipes and fresh ingredients. But toward the end of each January, my mother would haul that package from icy limbo and clunk the frozen carcass into a soup pot. December’s bones would slowly boil to a rich stock or hearty soup, resurrected as something old and something new.
Eating the less-appealing parts of the animal seems to have fallen from favor in the Western world. Skinless, de-boned chicken breasts, though more expensive, now outsell the intact chickens by far. Fish is filleted. Beef is chopped, minced, and displayed with a sprig of parsley. We haven’t always been so choosy. No doubt our Pleistocene ancestors stripped the mastodon clean. Even in the past two centuries, American cookbooks like the The American Frugal Housewife and The Joy of Cooking featured robust sections on cooking the whole animal, recipes for “variety meats” such as brains and kidneys, and myriad uses for bones—oxtail, knucklebones, marrow, and gelatin.*
Of course, the non-fleshy parts of animals have remained traditional throughout many countries and cultures. In South Africa, where we lived for several years (and which was the setting for my Mother City Mama column), crunchy chicken feet, intestine stew, and sheep heads called “smileys” are standard township fare. The smiley holds particular fascination for non-locals due in part to the name—which refers to the “smile” that appears as the sheep’s lips burn away—and in part to the fact that eating the entire head of an animal, sunken eyeballs and all, seems alien, daring, a tad desperate. It’s true that offal is cheaper than choice cuts of meat, but economy alone does not explain the smiley. Very similar sheep-head dishes are still served in more-affluent Norway and Iceland, and offal in various forms—lungs, testicles, stomach, feet—is popular throughout the world. Even in our current home on the coast of Nova Scotia, a traditional pork sausage known as Lunenburg pudding contains, according to multiple generations of sausage-makers, everything but the squeal.
North American restaurants and foodies are now circling back to dishes made with bones and offal. I’ve yet to see Lunenburg pudding on a bistro menu, but some upscale Nova Scotian eateries do offer cured pig snout, coeur de boeuf, and shaved beef-tongue sandwiches. Many more restaurants across North America, as well as trendy cooking channels, suggest ways to cook and serve marrow, often as a plate-sized, no-doubt-about-it bone and a crust of artisanal bread.
On the adventurous-eating scale, our family probably ranks a five out of ten, a score buoyed largely by my intrepid husband. We don’t hunt or live on a farm, so although my kids know bacon is pig and burger is cow, they’ve never witnessed the blow of that transition. Yet all three of my boys have caught and gutted fish, all have pondered both ends of a raw chicken, and two of three have sampled crispy, cheesy-flavored grasshoppers (thanks, once again, to my husband).
While I won’t poach lungs or roast snout any time soon—and, frankly, the mention of shaved tongue makes my knees buckle—when January wanes, I’ll most certainly haul down the stock pot and simmer a heap of bones into warm winter soup. I will do this for all the reasons eating the whole animal has persisted, more or less, in time and culture; because I learned from my mother, and she from her mother; because the meal will cost next to nothing; because bones lend vitamins, good fats, and fabulous taste.
I will rouse the bones of 2014 for another reason, too. Despite new year verve, our past endures. Bones and organs once gave form, lent lifelong structure from which a being grew, acted, changed. With a pinch of that promised poetry, we might envision them not as remnants or offcuts but as a rich and tasty pith that binds the fragmented memories of life together—one year to the next—into a beautifully imperfect whole.
*Look for our review of Books that Cook by Literary Mama editor Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite in March 2015.