Sunday, July 10, 2011
It Really Gets to the Marrow of Things
When I go to Bellville Brothers Butcher Shop and ask for marrow bones, the butcher looks at me strangely.
“You mean dog bones?” he asks. “I’ve got those.”
“No,” I say, “not for the dog. I’m going to eat them.”
He shrugs. “Here, I’ll show you what I got.” He walks me away from the glass class of expensive T-bones and filet mignon, so bright red that they look plastic, to the freezer case at the back of the store. “These?” He holds up a 10 inch long bone wrapped in plastic. Then he says, “My dog loves these bones. He’ll work on one for hours.”
I wish that he would get off the dog kick, so I try to get him back on my needs as a customer. “Those bones are too big. Can you cut them?” Then, we have a discussion about how to cut them. I want them cut lengthwise to better scoop out the marrow from the center. He says that he can’t do that. The bones are more fragile than they look. They will splinter too much. So he cuts them crosswise in three-inch long increments. The bones look like a human femur. The marrow is pink and thick. It is at the core, at the very center, of this desire I have. For something rich, nourishing, and out of the ordinary. I take the bones over to my friend Amanda’s house. Whenever I get a craving for foods that push the bounds of cultural conventions, Amanda is my accomplice. I’ve fed her bull testicles and chicken feet, tongue and liver. When I get to Amanda’s, we stand the bones up on end in a cast iron pan, and slide them into the oven. They roast until the marrow has turned a translucent whitish color, with the palest hint of yellow and gray.
Then, we scrape the marrow out of the interior of each bone with silver steak knives and slather the marrow on slices of toasted baguette. The marrow is unctuous. Rich. We sprinkle chopped capers and shallots and parsley over the thick smear of bone marrow.
Amanda’s black lab, Bleu, is jealous. He sits on the floor next to the table, looking expectantly at the stack of bones on the table. Maybe the butcher was right. Still, I am surprised that more people don’t realize that something this tasty, this succulent, this filling could be had for just a couple of dollars. I am satiated in way that most people only associate with those bright red, bloody steaks. Later, after Amanda has used the leftover marrow to roast potatoes, I still can’t stop thinking about marrow. But, now it’s more of an idea hanging in the air. Perhaps it is because the smell lingers. Even after scrubbing my hands with lavender soap my fingers still smell of beef tallow. Like the smell of grease clinging skin, my brain clings to the symbol of marrow. I mull over marrow. It is mysterious in ways that I can’t quite grasp. I look up the word marrow in the OED. Aside from the literal biological definition of marrow, the word can also mean the innermost part of a person’s being. Another less common usage for marrow is as a companion or even an accomplice. If used as an adjective it can denote a resemblance to something of the same kind, and I think of how Amanda and I are the knit from the same foodie cloth. When marrow is a verb, it means to join, and I think of the way the marrow fuses itself to the interior of the bone the same way that a meal brings people together. In the mid 1600s there was also a trend to use the word marrow in titles of books. That way the author could claim that his tome got at the very heart of the subject—that it dug into the deepest part of the issue. Most of these were religious titles like The Marrow of the Oracles of God or The Marrow of Sacred Divinity. In the end, I want to devour meaning just like the marrow. I want to consume it, so somehow, it gets to my essence. When eating marrow, there’s no forgetting that this animal I’m eating is like me with muscles and tendons and bones. Perhaps I eat things that make me think about death because, then maybe, I can understand being alive.
*Note: The recipe photographed and written about here is "Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad" from Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.
This recipe has also been reprinted all over the web and you can find it here, here, here, and here. There is also a great Mark Bittman video clip with Henderson here.