2000s Archive

One Man’s Meat

Originally Published January 2001
A single taste changed his life. John Thorne digs down to the marrow of the matter.

I was 9 years old. I had been helping set the table for Christmas dinner, covering it with the freshly ironed linen cloth, setting out the good china and the carefully polished silverware. I had just added the finishing touch—my mother’s prize pair of silver candelabra—and was now hanging out in the kitchen, standing beside the baked ham resplendent on our largest platter. As my mother mashed the potatoes, I stealthily pulled off little bits of crusty fat from around the ham’s edges and popped them into my mouth.

As I did this, my attention wandered from the edges of the ham to the bone in its middle, or, more precisely, to the pinkish stuff inside it. I didn’t know what it was or even if you were “supposed” to eat it. But there was something about the soft, luscious look of it that drew an exploratory finger. I scooped a little out, tasted it ... and found myself transported to heaven. Forty-eight years later, I still remember that moment—not my earliest culinary memory, but the first where a single taste would change my life.

To this day, I think ham marrow is one of the most delicious—certainly one of the most neglected delicious—things in the world. If my palate ruled, smokehouses would sell it in little jars that would have the status, if not the price, of caviar. Ham marrow is as delicately flavored and as easily spreadable as butter, but it has none of butter’s spinelessness. Instead, its oddly resilient texture resists melting even while it so delectably does. The difference can be put so: Butter is solidified cream; marrow is the ethereal distillation of meat.

The first time I noticed beef marrow bones in a supermarket, I was 30-something, living in a Boston neighborhood called Jamaica Plain. I did my grocery shopping in an old-fashioned A&P, the sort with cramped, narrow aisles, low ceilings, and harsh fluorescent lights. The bones were at the very end of the meat case, wrapped in packages labeled “Soup Bones.” Some contained a single large knuckle; others held sawed shin bones with centers full of marrow. None had a shred of meat attached—strange, I thought, as I had watched the butchers regularly toss bones with gobbets of meat still attached into the offal barrel. A package of the marrow bones quickly made its way into my basket, but I couldn’t help asking one of the butchers about this peculiar discrepancy—why throw away the meaty bones and sell the bare ones for making soup?

He gave me a look. “Those,” he said, pointing to the packages, “are meant for dogs. Customers don’t want dog bones with meat on them—they make too much of a mess.” When I stared at him blankly, he added, his voice dropping a little, “If we call them dog bones, people get upset finding them in with the meat they’re buying for themselves.” He glanced down the aisle before adding in an even lower tone, “And, anyway, if we labeled them ‘Dog Bones,’ people would expect to get them for free.” I bore this information back home with me along with my groceries. I was, it seemed, in love with dog food.

The eating of bone marrow, to be sure, is hardly unknown. The French use it to give a glossy delicacy to sauces, and it is a featured element in that Italian classic, osso buco. In Georgian England, cooks would saw an end off a beef shin bone, cover the opening with pastry, bake the thing in the oven, and then send it, wrapped in a napkin, to table, where it was eaten with special silver spoons. Victorian eaters—for the most part, exclusively male—would scoop out the marrow and spread it on toast. American mountain men, after killing a buffalo, roasted the bones and drank the marrow from them as if from flagons.

These days, in New York City, you can enjoy bone marrow roasted and spread on toast at Blue Ribbon Bakery, or made into dumplings at David Bouley’s Danube. But years ago, I quickly learned that—outside of ethnic neighborhoods—we marrow lovers were out of sync with the culinary majority. I remember looking up the topic in Waverley Root’s culinary encyclopedia Food, which appeared in 1980, at the height of my marrow passion. Root, who had already chronicledthe regional cooking of France and Italy, was no stranger to the odd mouthful. But his definition of marrow reads: “the rather mucilaginous matter which fills bones and is considered a particular delicacy by cannibals....”

Cannibals! This hit a little too close to home—especially because my own way of eating beef marrow was not to poach it—the usual preparation—but to dig it raw from the bone and spread it onto a hot English muffin. The latter’s heat softened the marrow’s tallowlike consistency until it was almost as smooth as butter. This raw stuff roused a much more visceral reaction in me than ham marrow ever did—a provocative mixture of pleasure and fear.

From the perspective of today’s health concerns, of course, there are good reasons to avoid raw bone marrow. But back then, mad cow disease was unknown and cholesterol-intensive fare had only just made the top of the food police’s “Most Wanted” list. No, what made me uneasy was the simple fact that, unlike poached marrow (which tastes mostly of bone), raw marrow, even if tempered by the heat of toast, has the delicate but unmistakable tang of blood.

Interestingly, the full-throated potency of blood sausage makes me gag; it’s the only offal-related food that I’m completely unable to eat. But bone marrow is different. It is not blood. It is what produces blood. There is no deeper, darker part of the body than the interior of our bones. To eat the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue that hides there is to put into your mouth the source of life itself.

john thorne,
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