Bones

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They say charity begins at home. They also say that “no good deed goes unpunished.” But I have a new aphorism that I hope some day catches on: “Donating your clothes to the Salvation Army leads to goat curry.”

After a week of cleaning out the closet, making room for Craig, we had four giant garbage bags of clothes we didn’t want anymore. Instead of throwing them out, I volunteered to bring them to the Salvation Army which, in Park Slope, is on Atlantic Avenue, west of where we live.

I’d only ever been to the Post Office on Atlantic Avenue and so, in my journey to Salvation Army headquarters, I discovered a whole new world of eating I never knew existed. In particular, a placed called “Stir It Up: West Indian Cuisine.” After dropping off the bags to grateful Salvation Army workers, I decided to pop into “Stir It Up” for lunch (especially after reading a nice review of it from The New York Times taped to the window.)

Of all the items on the menu, two jumped out as dishes I should try because I’d never had either before: (1) ginger beer; and (2) goat curry. The ginger beer was dynamite: literally, my mouth lit up with the heat that comes from chopped, uncooked ginger. I really liked it.

The goat curry was pretty great too and what made it great is the subject of today’s post (it took me a while to get there): bones.

As I stabbed my fork into the jumble of meat before me, I saw white pieces poking out that I thought were potatoes. So as one of these white pieces entered my mouth, imagine my surprise to find that it was bone.

Now many Americans–I’m not going to say “all Americans” because sweeping generalizations get me in trouble–might be grossed out by the presence of bone in their food. Not only that; they might be outraged. The bones were plentiful and tiny, dangerous even to an old war horse like me. But I was grateful they were there: it made the dish more authentic and, more importantly, it made it taste better.

Before me I have Michael Ruhlman’s excellent new book, The Elements of Cooking in which, under the entry for “bones” he writes: “Bones are valuable because they are composed mainly of connective tissue that adds gelatin, and therefore body, to stocks, stews, soups and braising liquids.”

A few months ago, I went back to Pho Grand and had their caramel fish:

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It was fish cooked in a syrupy sauce with ginger and other spices and it was truly excellent. In there, though, there were also lots of bones: one poked me in the cheek pretty roughly, another went down as I swallowed.

But it was worth it: as Ruhlman says, the bones gave the dish body. That’s why fish served at Chinese restaurants–braised entirely intact, eyeball and all–is often better than the “Blando Calrissian” fish you get elsewhere. (Note: Craig coined the term “Blando Calrissian” and I thought I’d share its nerdiness here.) Bones are a boon to meat and fish; so why don’t more American restaurants serve food with bones?

I think there are two main reasons:

– Americans are lazy. They don’t like to work when they eat: so olives must be pitted for them, their linguine with white clam sauce is better with canned clams rather than the kind you have to take apart yourself. When Americans go out to eat they want food they can shovel into their mouths quickly and efficiently: hence the popularity of hamburgers, pizza, and tacos.

– Americans are litigious. It’d be risky for an American chef to serve a customer a big bowl of meat or fish with tiny bones. Could a customer sue for choking on a bone? Here’s where my law degree comes in handy (I’m sure my lawyer readers will correct any inaccuracies) but if a jury agrees that chefs have a duty to debone their fish before serving and that the chef breached that duty, that chef could be in trouble. Plus, even if there’s no suing, chefs want to cultivate happy customers: and not too many customers would be happy after choking on a bone.

And so, where does that leave you, my bone-hungry reader? The answer is: ethnic eateries. It’s not a coincidence that both “Stir It Up” and “Pho Grand” served their food with bones: their customers are more likely to accept this as natural, if not downright logical. The West Indian patrons of “Stir It Up” and Chinese/Vietnamese patrons of “Pho Grand” know what’s good for them, that’s why they eat their food the way God intended for it to be eaten (well, I assume God intended it that way: I mean he did give fish and cows bones, didn’t he?) Isn’t it a miracle of both gastronomy and anatomy that the very bones on which our flesh hangs makes that flesh taste better when you cook it? Almost makes me want to cook myself.

If that happens, you can donate my blog to The Salvation Army and reward yourself with some delicious, bony goat curry.

27 comments

  1. You never had ginger beer before?! That means you’ve never had a true dark and stormy, either. Tsk tsk!

  2. I was raised on whole fish steamed Chinese-style and whenever I eat it, my mouth instinctively goes on bone alert. My tongue and teeth are constantly searching for that stray bone. It’s a painful skill to acquire, but a handy one at that.

  3. I think a third reason for taking out bones is that Americans prefer not to be reminded that their food was once alive. Bones are working parts of living animals and remind us of their alive-ness. A boneless fish fillet or a chicken breast doesn’t scream “I am an animal that was once alive” the way a whole fish or something with bones does.

  4. Negligence – if a reasonable chef would have deboned the meat. You still got it. Wonder if that’s actually a good thing…

  5. Adam – I’m just a 2L but I think your negligence analysis is right on point. Although, I think your first point is an even stronger argument: Americans are lazy! I totally agree that bones add so much to any dish (have you ever used chicken feet in your chicken stock/soup? AMAZING!). Love the blog – keep up the good work!

  6. you really need to spend more time on Atlantic Ave. There are so many great restaurants (and flower shops) there. Head down to Boreum Hill and explore!

  7. It’s my belief that many Americans would frown on finding buckshot in the pheasant pate as well….

    Really, takes all of the adventure out of eating, now, doesn’t it?

    I suppose the “once a live animal” thing explains the lack of pigs ears, feet and snouts in the meat section of the local super…

  8. It’s my belief that many Americans would frown on finding buckshot in the pheasant pate as well….

    Really, takes all of the adventure out of eating, now, doesn’t it?

    I suppose the “once a live animal” thing explains the lack of pigs ears, feet and snouts in the meat section of the local super…

  9. I have had people from the USA refuse to eat the tiny wine grapes fresh off the vines on our farm and go to the supermarket and buy instead tasteless grapes grown under glass.

  10. I’m so glad to read this post! My partner and I have been arguing about the presence of bones in our food recently. We’ve started eating a lot of rabbit – really lean, really flavorful, and since we buy it directly from the local farmer, who is our friend, we know it’s been humanely raised and killed. However, rabbits have teeny tiny little rib bones that are a lot like fish bones. My partner throws them all in the pot to make rabbit stew and then doesn’t debone the stew before serving. I think you can cook with the bones to get the flavor and then serve it without the bones. I really don’t want to chomp down on a bone while eating my stew. It’s just not something I want to have to worry about. I guess I fall under the “lazy American” category. My partner is from West Africa, and they serve lots of meat with bones there, so maybe this is a cultural thing. He thinks I’m just being a picky girl. I don’t mind bones in meat when there’s a cut of meat on my plate, because I can see everything and know where to cut, but in a soup or stew, I really want to just be able to eat without picking my bowl of food apart first.

  11. I think it’s also that some people (I hate to say “Americans” because I get so tired of blanket generalizations) are sort of grossed out by the germs involved in picking tiny bones out of your meal. Americans have no problem eating meat off the bone (e.g., T-bone steak, bone-in chicken) most of the time, but I think people are squicked out by having to chew their food, pick the bones out with their fingers, and do something with the remains.

  12. I think a bone presence disclaimer on the menu would probably lead to a successful assumption of the risk defense in most jurisdictions.

  13. I think a bone presence disclaimer on the menu would probably lead to a successful assumption of the risk defense in most jurisdictions.

  14. I love bones! I had a fantastic goat stew at a local Portuguese restaurant, and indeed the bones are white. We found the knee joint intact and it was amazing.

    I like to grill or roast whole fish also. Bones never bother me.

  15. “I volunteered to bring them to the Salvation Army which, in Park Slope, is on Atlantic Avenue, west of where we live.”

    As a former longtime dweller of the area of which you write – that is, I lived around the block from the Salvation Army, I just want to offer this geographic correction (or perhaps linguistic adjustment). That is, it’s in Downtown Bklyn, or better, if you wish to use the fancier moniker, Boerum Hill. It is west of Park Slope but your choice of words made it seem as if it’s in the Slope, just the western part of the Slope. Sorry to be difficult.

    Otherwise, enjoyed the post and recommend the cookbook Bones, by Jennifer Mclagan. I highly recommend her recipe for marrow bones with a parsley salad chaser – fabulous and delicious.

  16. Bones most definitely have a place in cooking. My split pea soup is always better with a few strips of flanken (with bones), my sweet and sour meatball always benefit from a large marrow bone cooked in with the gravy, and a fantastic soup can be made with a turkey carcass. I’m a believer. The only objection I have to bones in food are those crumbling salmon vertibrae in salmon cakes. *squick!*

  17. Glad you’ve discovered that neighborhood. There’s really authentic food up and down Atlantic Avenue, and some cool dry goods stores where you can get fresh dates and almonds (that is, not dried as most of us know them). One time I saw Jacques Torres in one of the smaller shops on Atlantic Ave on the hunt for fresh mint (he didn’t find it there, unfortunately).

    And on the topic of goat, there is even a halal meat shop where you can get goat and other very freshly butchered meat–I think it is on Atlantic and Flatbush or thereabouts.

  18. Goat meat is fantastic — lean, flavorful, healthy, and if cooked correctly, just delicious. It is served widely in Switzerland at this time of year, as it is one of the most popular game meats, along with wild boar. Although a little difficult to get in the US, check a halal grocer in the larger cities or look for someone who raises goats for meat.

  19. once i cut open my leg and carved out a piece of my shin — it was deeeeeeeeLICIOUS! i am all for bones.

  20. MMMMM…do cooks have a “duty to care” for their guests? Let’s check case law on this!

    I would argue, as AG says, that anything too “complicated” to eat is going to be a problem in the US. I remember the first time I ate clafoutis in France…made with unpitted cherries….careful, or your fillings would pop out in an instant!

    Even fish “fillets” in France are notorious for still having small bones…

    And how many Americans will make the effort to eat an artichoke (and not just the canned hearts)…peeling the leaves, sucking the leaves, etc., just seems to be “too much work.”

    At this point, I would crave food that actually comes a little closer to its “natural” state..shrimp cooked with its shell intact is ten times more flavorful than the mushy shelled junk that is common in much of the US.

  21. bones in all the way, much more flavourful, and as long as you’re aware, not really a problem to deal with. also they’re a good reminder to say a little thank you to whomever you are eating.

    and ginger beer rocks! the best for cooling off on hot days/hot meals. apparently easy to brew too…

  22. I lived in southern France for a year and quickly got over how little the meat and fish were trimmed – even in the large grocery stores. Finding bones and feathers in everything took some getting used to, but now I’m back in NYC – back to the perfectly trimmed, deboned and defeather’d meat and fish.

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