On Bones

Considering competing visions of the food future.

The way we talk about vegetables often mimics how we speak about animal carcasses and flesh. Or perhaps I’m speaking only for myself. Despite my belief in the supremacy of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains, my language of cooking is decidedly meat-centric. I butcher jackfruit and panapén. I cut kale off its ribs and save the bones. I scoop out the eggplants innards. I stuff the hollowed-out cavity of a squash. I peel off the skin of onions, and think about how in Spanish there are different words for the skin of vegetables and animals: Cáscara. Cuero. A clove of garlic, though, is a diente, a tooth. Our bodies are the map of our gastronomy, whether human or non-human animal.

I became obsessed with writing an essay about bones in 2018, which was years after bone broth (a bit of a misnomer) had debuted on the New York scene with Marco Canora’s Brodo. What was going to be my way into bones, as a vegetarian? How would I write about bones without making it read like vegan propaganda? I just wanted to think through what it means for an animal’s very bones to create so much of the basis of gastronomy. From what I’ve read, learning to make stock is one of the first lessons in culinary school. I wanted to ponder the inclination to suck out bone marrow, something I’m told my grandmother loved to do. Marrow bones on a plate were cool (they’re still cool—I saw one on Instagram last week), because insouciance is cool, and what’s more insouciant than eating the inside of literal bones?

In 2016, I broke two bones in my foot walking down the stairs of my Crown Heights apartment building. The experience made me think about the meaning of bones, their essential functions. Breaking bones reminded me that I had bones to begin with. It made me think about the omnivore’s act of putting a chicken’s carcass stripped of flesh in a pot of water and boiling it, until all flavor had been extruded—until there was a thick liquid left behind that would allow the animal to live on, night after night, until exhausted through risottos and soups. What we leave behind on this planet once humanity is exhausted will be chicken bones. They litter the streets, too, which I only discovered when I got a dog. Chicken bones are everywhere, posing a danger to Benny’s health and building our legacy: a legacy of modification and industrialization and confinement of animals. What has given us this measure of abundance has been a political and ethical failure, the cost of which is potentially our very existence.

Whenever I talk to conscientious meat-eaters, they tell me about how they use up every last bit of the humanely raised animals they purchase and eat. Because I think of things differently after a decade of not seeing animals as food, I wince a bit: I think about my bones being boiled, my fat being stored in a jar for later. This is why no one wants a vegetarian to write about bones: We sound hysterical. And because the future probably doesn’t involve everyone giving up meat completely (though perhaps bit by bit, it will happen, if new California animal welfare regulations are a bellwether), it’s probably best to listen to the conscientious omnivores. I’d prefer to live in their world than a corporate processed protein dystopia, even if I continue to abstain.

But the world of the conscientious omnivore and happy vegetarian living in harmony is no longer presented as an option. It’s an anachronism, apparently. Now we have two perspectives on the future being presented to us: continue with the factory farming and the monocropped GMO corn and soy, or surrender to the world of tech meat where we replace those with pea and oat. The “meatless future” envisioned at Vox is one that doesn’t even consider the potential of supporting small farmers, of supporting agroecology, or of the universal basic income and guaranteed housing and free college tuition and nationalized health care that would create conditions for people to cook and even grow their own food. It’s just the same shit, removing the animals. It’s displacement of the problems when what we need is far more radical.

All the lab meat being developed for possible future consumption doesn’t have bones. Lab wings would be boneless; lab ribs—how would those work? There wouldn’t be meat stock, gelatinous and thick. It’s funny to me, of course, that the development of these products wouldn’t (or rather, couldn’t) take into account this gastronomically significant aspect of eating animals, one that conscientious meat-eaters are so attached to—would lab meat have fat drippings? With these products, meat would be only its essence. It would perform no other function but its most base function. I know that these products are only about replacing the cheapest, most broadly consumed meat, which means a nutritional experiment for the poorest folks while the rich continue to suck on elegant marrow bones, to have a quart of fresh stock in the fridge. 

Who defines abundance, and for whom? Often, people who think like me—who think localized agroecology as the foundation of our food consumption is an ideal one for the environment, our health, our economies, our existence—are considered luddites or otherwise stuck in the past. It’s considered a detriment to really care about how food tastes; this is dismissed as an aesthetic concern. Well, aesthetics matter. Taste matters. Tradition matters. Culture matters. Bones matter, gastronomically and metaphorically. The vegetarian and the vegan: with whom do we align? I know the world I prefer, and it’s one where I can have a good-natured ethical argument with someone who cares about their food as much as I do and there are an array of sustainable, ethical, nutritious, accessible choices for those who don’t.

Because I don’t eat meat, I get a bit hysterical about it, sure, but it’s also obvious to me how dystopian that vision of the future is if it doesn’t take into consideration best culinary practices, only the same kind of raw efficiency that’s killing the planet. A world where more people were able to cook, or were nourished by those in their community who enjoy cooking while they do other work? A utopian vision that I would vastly prefer to manifest, not least of all because that vision would have me in the kitchen all day rather than here typing. When I was still watching A Handmaid’s Tale, that vision of a fundamentalist dystopia, I would think, At least I’d be cooking. No matter how the future goes, I’ll be in the kitchen. That’s my eternal comfort.

Of course, despite all the boosters asking for a policy “moonshot,” as Tom Philpott reported for Mother Jones, we’re actually a long way from lab meat being any sort of reality. It makes more sense, doesn’t it, to fight for factory farming to be regulated and not subsidized out of its very existence and for us to form a new world in its wake than to waste more breath and newsprint inches on these companies? Why do our visions for the future have to be centered on meat, lab or animal flesh? Why do they have to be centered on corporations at all? Big Ag, Big Meat, Big Fake Meat, Big Fake Egg. There’s so much we can change that would make us less dependent upon it. I believe in a world where people realize they don’t need meat at every meal, and it’s a world where our basic needs are met. It’s a world where we have space to reimagine what we consider abundance: an abundance that acknowledges our urgent need for survival.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that my food language is so meat-centric; I just want its centricity to feel like more of a relic. I want a future where the ribs of a kale leaf come to mind more readily than those of a pig. In this future, there would be bones for stock, sure, but not as many. Should our legacy be an earth littered with the bones of chickens whose lives were spent miserably in cages? Or should our legacy be one of less waste, of deep flavor, of care?

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature journalist, NYU professor, and author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America Mayukh Sen. We discuss how he has developed his unique style of food writing, his book’s cinematic propulsion, and the ways in which food media has and hasn’t changed over the decades.

On Wednesday, I’ll be sending the first of my new monthly cooking missives to all signups—but they’ll usually be for paid subscribers. It will include recipes, links to recipes, and general kitchen goings-on. Everything in it will always be vegan and about cooking from scratch.

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5. Listen to audio of essays on all podcast platforms.

Again, we’re just editing big pieces right now!

I don’t want to talk about it because I’m not having any fun.

Lots and lots of testing vegan flan de calabaza or creme caramel—remains to be seen, but it’s for an exciting project. I marinated jackfruit in harissa and then got it crispy in olive oil—I recommend this!!! Served with flatbread, lightly fermented purple cabbage, pickled red onions, and Sami Tamimi’s hummus. Up there’s parcha panna cotta.