THE MARROW OF THE MATTER
I was nine 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 marrowbones in a supermarket, I was thirty-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 shinbones 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 marrowbones 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 shinbone, 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 a special silver spoon. 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.
However, when I started my own search, 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 chronicled the 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, all the more so 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 tallowy 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. Ultimately, this fearsome intimacy proved too much for me. And I dealt with it the way the subconscious disposes of many problematic issues—by pushing it out of mind. Years would pass without even a sign that marrow had once been one of my favorite foods.
Then, recently, I began noticing marrowbones for sale at our local supermarket. They were large, and the marrow packed inside them smooth and creamy. Something in me stirred; I took a package home. How had I prepared these, anyway? I couldn’t remember. So I searched through some cookbooks and learned how to cap the ends with foil and roast the bones in the oven. I brought them to the table and spread their contents on sourdough toast. I ate with relish, but also bemusement. Why had I been so unsettled by this stuff? It was rich, sure, but it was also delicious, and a little went a long way.
I was so delighted with our reacquaintance that I decided to acquire an authentic marrow spoon. I went online to eBay, and after considering a lovely silver one made by William Chawner II in 1830 for the mess kit of a military officer—the bidding had reached a little more than 300 dollars—I settled for an undated spoon by Cooper Brothers of Sheffield. Bidding was desultory; I nailed it for fifteen bucks. It was a full nine inches in length, with a long narrow scoop at one end and an equally long but even narrower scoop at the other—an admirable example of form in hot pursuit of function. I was thrilled with it.
Even so, I wasn’t entirely happy. This beef marrow was a little greasier, a little soupier, than I remembered. I didn’t realize why until we happened to buy some country ham slices and I was able to savor ham marrow again. It was thick and unctuous . . . somehow I had gotten beef marrow to be that way as well. And then it came to me: I used to eat it raw. I was appalled. Eating raw marrow was one of those things—like driving a sports car down a moonlit empty road with the headlights turned off—I didn’t exactly regret doing but knew I could never do again.
I was also reminded that the marrow in the ham bones had been cured and smoked. Might there not be some circumstance in which beef bones were prepared that way, too? I returned to the Internet, went to my favorite search engine, and typed in "beef marrowbones smoked." To my astonished delight, I soon found myself at the website of a country smokehouse that specialized in beef bones. They were treated with a real maple-sugar cure and smoked over hickory, then sealed in Cryovac and frozen. They were also amazingly inexpensive—$3.50 a bone. There was, as it happens, a very good explanation for this (which is why I’m not revealing the name of the smokehouse): these bones were being marketed for dogs.
I pondered this. During my first marrow phase, I actually had a dog, a Siberian husky named Mick. He would sit patiently while I ate my toast, knowing his turn would be coming soon. It was a companionable thing; his utter interest in the proceedings helped make the meal. It would be an insult to his memory to let the phrase "canine treat" stand in my way now. The people at the country smokehouse took real pride in their bones; the only thing that kept them aimed at dogs was the cost of USDA inspection and the lack of demand for them as "human" treats.
I sent my order in.
You’ll want to know, perhaps, how they were. Really, all I’d hoped. Since the bones were already fully cooked, I had only to warm them to room temperature. The marrow was—if not exactly like that of a ham bone—rich and silky, with a whispery taste of smoke. I felt the little stab of guilt that these days is an inescapable part of eating rich food, but nothing that put me off my feed. On the contrary. As I scoured out the last of the marrow, I caught myself thinking how nice it would be to now lie down on the living room rug and gnaw awhile on the bone.
Bagna caôda is a dish for cold weather, to be made at least a month after the grape harvest, when the wine has all been safely cellared and a barrel of the new vintage is finally ready for broaching . . . Or, to put it another way, [it] is to be made at the beginning of the season when the peasant starts his rest, for this dish also celebrates the arrival of that short time of respite in a life of hard and endless work.
—Giovanni Goria, "La Bagna caôda"
I first sampled bagna caôda—which literally means "hot bath"*—back when I was young, freshly awakened to the adventure of eating, and insatiably alert to things good and new. It was a highly romantic evening. Not for me, the guest, but for the couple who had invited me over; it was their first social dinner since they had moved in together. There was candlelight, there was wine, and there was this bubbling pot of creamy, rich, but also subtly piquant sauce—the hot bath—into which we dipped small pieces of raw vegetable and bits of bread.
I was already familiar—even overfamiliar—with both meat and cheese fondues, but what I was eating that night seemed several degrees more sophisticated, and not simply because it was so new. Even the uninitiated could grasp what fondue was all about: Welsh rabbit eaten as dip; quick-frying your own strips of beef. But bagna caôda was something you had to take on faith . . . that you would like it, that you would "get it," that it would, by the end of the meal, have filled you up.
*Caôda is dialect for calda, the feminine form of the standard Italian word for hot. Caôda is now mostly spelled cauda, but I like the implacable foreignness of the circumflex, its hint of a distant corner of a language where words still taste of local speech.
Well, as Meat Loaf used to sing, two out of three ain’t bad. I did like it—very much so—and it did—rather to my surprise—fill me up. That was enough at the time to persuade me that I also understood what was going on. But, on reflection, I’m not at all sure I did. Because, as much as I enjoyed it, as easy as it seemed to make, bagna caôda has always floated just beyond my grasp.
We all know dishes like this—where the ingredients are at hand and the appetite interested, but where any tentative movement toward them comes to a halt almost as soon as it begins, running smack up against some psychic tree branch that has fallen down and blocked the path . . . or, in this instance, a whole pile of them.
Bagna caôda is to the Piedmont region of Italy what chili con carne is to Texas or feijoada to Brazil: a dish that has become the embodiment of regional identity. However, its bare-bones simplicity can easily tempt the unwary outsider into understanding it too quickly, which is just what had happened to me. To grasp bagna caôda, I had to step away from the dish and look around—because, when eaten on its native turf, it is more than a meal; it is an event.
So Howard Hillman discovered when, exploring Piedmont one autumn, he stopped to watch the grape harvest at a small vineyard.* As he stood there, the owner of the plot drove up in his truck, emerging from it with
an earthenware crock half-filled with a hot olive-oil-and-butter sauce, accented with anchovies and garlic. He also brought half a dozen liter bottles of hearty red wine and two wicker baskets—one overflowing with bread sticks and the other with fresh, raw vegetables, including scallions and cardoon stalks. All was neatly placed on a grassy patch under a venerable oak tree.
The workers quickly assembled themselves around the fare, leaving a sitting space for me. Following the lead of my newfound friends, I selected a vegetable, dipped it in the hot sauce,
*He tells this story in Great Peasant Dishes of the World, a carefully detailed and often insightful collection of hearty simple dishes, many personally gathered by the author from almost everywhere in the world—an undeservedly neglected book that is well worth chasing down.
Excerpted from Mouth Wide Open by John Thorne.
Copyright 2007 by John Thorne.
Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.