A few weeks ago my wife and I were examining a menu of a Tampa restaurant, when we were startled to see a new kind of appetizer – roast marrow bones! Naturally, we had to try it. It turned out to be totally delicious:
(photograph by the author)
This whole topic of marrow bones is absolutely fascinating. When I grew up as a kid in Russia, my mother (who, incidentally, is a great cook – probably the best I know apart from professional chefs, and better than most professionals, anyway) used to make soups with marrow bones. For example, the famous Russian borsch (note, not ‘borscht’, I have no idea where that extra ‘t’ came from) really tastes best when the bouillon is made with marrow bones.
After moving to the States I went for years without eating anything made with marrow bones. In fact, most Americans consider bones as merely dog food.
After I switched to the (so-called) Paleo diet a year ago, I’ve re-encountered bones. In one of the most useful books on Paleo diet, Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminets recommend making bone broth and consuming it pretty much daily. So I went hunting for marrow bones in local supermarkets, and found two who sell them (one even sells fresh, unfrozen bones).
Drinking the first two spoonfuls of the bone broth was an incredible experience. My body said, ‘ahhh.’ So, clearly, I was missing on all the wonderful nutrients that marrow contains.
But what I did not realize, until that Tampa restaurant, is that eating roasted bone marrow is an even better taste experience.
After coming back from Tampa I checked on-line recipes and found that a better way of roasting marrow bones is not standing them upright, but getting them sawed lengthwise and roasting them lying horizontally.
One advantage is that fat doesn’t flow out. And you want that fat, believe me. You especially want it if you want to lose some pounds. In the nonlinear universe, when you eat fat you get slimmer; if you avoid fat, you become fatter.
The second advantage is that it is kind of hard to get the marrow out from a whole bone (you are usually reduced to undignified sucking and slurping). Whereas if the bone is split lengthwise, you simply scoop the marrow out with a narrow spoon (the French, naturally enough, make special marrow spoons). The simplest recipe is to sprinkle some rock salt on the split marrow bones, roast them for 15 min at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, then squeeze a little lemon on it, and eat. Ahhh.
While I dislike the moniker ‘Paleo diet’ (for reasons explained in this blog), bone marrow is your ultimate Paleo food. It seems increasingly likely that our career as carnivores was launched as scavengers who specialized on eating bone marrow.
About two million years ago, primitive humans (such as Homo habilis) were too small, too stupid, and did not know how to use projectiles well enough. We couldn’t bring down an antelope, or chase away sabertooth lions from their kill (on the contrary, Homo habilis was a staple for sabertooth cats). But we could wait until the lions were done, sneak in, snatch some bones, and bring them to the camp. Then we would grab a nice handy rock (that’s what habilis means, ‘handy man’) and pound a bone to extract marrow from it. It’s quite possible that the nutrients bone marrow provides allowed us to increase brain size.
So eating bone marrow is both yummy, fun, and a way to return to our Paleo roots.
Getting the marrow from a big, thick, tough ungulate bone is not easy at all. I bring a piece of a cow femur (thigh bone) to my class in Cultural Evolution, so that my students can appreciate how hard it is to extract marrow from it. For a long time I thought that the only competitor to early humans for those big bones were the hyenas (actually, it’s hard to understand how even hyenas could crack those thigh bones – they are really tough). But it turns out that there was another species who figured out how to get at the yummy stuff. Watch this video to find who it is (thanks to Mark’s Daily Apple for the link).
I am going to end this blog with another reminiscence from my childhood in Russia. One of the favorite authors of children’s books in Russia, when I grew up, was the nineteenth century Irish-American writer Mayne Reid. Most of my American friends never heard of him, but we were raised on reading his stories (in Russian translation). The story relevant to today’s blog is The Boy Hunters, or Adventures in Search of the White Buffalo, published in 1868.
At one point in the story the main characters find themselves traveling through the prairies with their food stocks exhausted. Their attempts at hunting are unsuccessful, and after several days of starving they are debating whether it is time to sacrifice their trusty mule, Jeanette, to slake their hunger. As they are setting up their hungry camp for the night, suddenly
a loud exclamation from Basil drew the attention of his brothers. It was a shout of joy, followed by a wild laugh, like the laugh of a maniac!
François and Lucien looked up in affright—thinking that something disagreeable had happened—for they could not understand why Basil should be laughing so loudly at such a time, and under such gloomy circumstances.
As they looked at him he still continued to laugh, waving the hatchet around his head as if in triumph.
“Come here, brothers!” shouted he; “come here! Ha! ha! ha! Here’s a supper for three hungry individuals! Ha! ha! ha! What shallow fellows we are, to be sure! Why, we are as stupid as the donkey that preferred eating the hay with the bread and butter beside him. Look here! and here! and there! There’s a supper for you. Ha! ha! ha!”
Lucien and François had now arrived upon the ground; and seeing Basil point to the great joints of the buffalo, and turn them over and over, at once understood the cause of his mirth. These joints were full of marrow!
“Pounds of it,” continued Basil; “the very tit-bits of the buffalo—enough to make suppers for a dozen of us; and yet we were going to sleep supperless, or the next thing to it—going to starve in the midst of plenty! And we have been travelling among such treasures for three days past! Why, we deserve to starve for being so simple. But come, brothers! help me to carry these great joints to the fire—I’ll show you how to cook a supper.”
There are eight marrow-bones in the buffalo, containing several pounds of this substance. As Basil had heard from the old hunters, it is esteemed the most delicious part of the animal; and is rarely left behind when a buffalo has been killed. The best method of preparing it is by simply roasting it in the bone; although the Indians and trappers often eat it raw. The stomachs of our young hunters were not strong enough for this; and a couple of the shank-bones were thrown into the fire, and covered over with red cinders.
In due time the marrow was supposed to be sufficiently baked; and the bones having been cracked by Lucien’s hatchet, yielded up their savoury store—which all three ate with a great relish. A cup of cool water washed it down; and around the camp-fire of the boy hunters thirst and hunger were now contemplated only as things of the past. Jeanette was respited, without one dissentient voice.
Yes, a wonderful food. I have eaten it all my life (my mother liked it), from soup bones, lamb shank bones, and o-bone steaks. True Paleo food. But, remember, so are termites, ant nests, tough roots, sour berries, and, of course, the carrion that those bones were in, in your stories.
That “t” on borscht was the New York-from-East-Europe Jewish (Yiddish) pronunciation. That begs the question of where they got it. Always the way it was spelled in old New York.
On Paleo diets and the like, see Marlene Zuk, “Paleofantasy.” She was my colleague here till she and her husband got better jobs back east. (“Back east” is a small, compact place comprising all the US across the Colorado River. I think it’s about the size of east Riverside.) She’s pretty hard on the paleo diet.
From evidence, people in the Paleolithic lived according to the rule I heard in East Texas when I was growing up: “I’m so hungry I’ll eat anything that won’t eat back faster.” That was literally true in the Paleolithic. In our native Africa, we humans probably joined the rush to live off alate forms of termites when they swarmed. Sounds good. Wild yams, rats, moles, algae, etc. were no doubt a big part of the diet, along with marrow.
Gene, I’ve got to come up with a better name for this diet – this is why I usually add ‘so-called’ in front of it. Marlene Zuk is attacking a complete strawman in her book. I actually agree with most of what she says, but it’s irrelevant. My reasons for eating the diet I eat are a result of evolutionary thinking, on the theoretical side, and the simple fact that I feel 10 years younger, on the empirical side. No matter what Zuk says, I am not going to give up on it!
“the French, naturally enough, make special marrow spoons”
Not only French. Now I know what that strange looking sterling spoon with Victorian English hallmarks was used for. 🙂
Interesting that there is a special implement for eating bone marrow. But the culture of eating it was lost, at least in America. Now with the surging interest in Paleo diet, bone marrow will be coming back, so best enjoy it while it’s still cheap!
Hi Peter. Excellent blog post! Will you be attending AHS (Ancestral Health Symposium) this year in Atlanta? I’d like to meet you.
Thanks, Aaron. Not this year, I only learned about AHS a couple of months ago. But perhaps in the future. I was just looking through the abstracts yesterday, prompted by John Durant’s tweat about the topic of his talk.
Hope to see you there next year.
On the topic of special spoons and a culture of eating marrow and how it is “lost”:
I don’t know that much about the culinary history of it, but it seems interesting to me that a lot of things like eating marrow, offal or organ meats and many parts of the animal seen as delicacies in other cultures, was somewhat lost in our Anglo-American culture, and with modernity. Often times people will think of those things as “foreign” or “ethnic”, or something you’d eat on a reality show like Fear Factor.
On that note, I had been thinking about why this trend happened.
I’ve often heard it being chalked down to us living more in cities, growing up without exposure to farms/slaughterhouses etc. and thus being more far-removed from making the connection between animals and meat, so we avoid things like organs, heads, tails, ears etc. because it reminds us too much of the animals. Eating those things also seems to have connotations and associations with poverty or desperation too.
But I’ve also been told that with modernization, the trend was towards easier to clean, less messy-looking parts with bits and pieces of bone, like the kind used for stews and more things like plain, chops or steaks. Even something like favoring less flavorful but “cleaner”-looking white chicken breast over the dark meat of a drumstick seems to follow this trend.
I wonder if this is unique to “our culture” or just a general trend with industrialized, urbanized culture, since other non-Anglo societies, like say the French or Japanese seem more “adventurous” with the range of things they eat, despite being just as modern or urban.
I too enjoy bone marrow but I’m not sure it’s the reason to come down on Marlene Zuk.
Her main pre-occupation seems to be that there is no way of knowing what would constitute a ‘paleo’ diet and criticises palaeolithic diets from the point of view genetic knowledge [ or the lack of it] and their ‘ fanatics ‘ who credulously hold to the diet. Quoting from the Guardian review of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live; Zuk quotes a typical example: “there’s three problems with tubers: a) Poisonous substances; b) Carb load; c) Problems we are yet to discover.” This is about the potato: a significant world problem of our time, no doubt.
Let’s examine it from a Darwinian point of view. Due to relocation or environmental change, a small population finds it no longer has access to it’s ‘traditional’ staple diets. Thus it has to scour the new environment for acceptable replacements and new technologies in dealing with them e.g. finding a cooking technique that destroys toxins. Even then the new food may not agree with all of the population and some of the members may weaken and die [ not being able to withstand the other changes that have occured] This is of course going to preferentially affect the young and any genetic component that does not fit with the new diet e.g. gluten intolerance. So either the diet will be altered for the young [ assuming pattern recognition kicks in] or the gene pool will change so to adapt the population over the years to the new diet. In small populations this may be occurring within a few generations of the changes in diet. There are increasing numbers of these genetic components being found so the gene pool in present populations bears little resemblance to that of Palaeoperson. Classic Darwin but as we are far from finding all the dietary / genetic factors that affect even our individual bodies, then Zuk’s timely warning is justified.
However, if you try the diet, like it and can live on it and can thrive then all to the good.
I wish you good health.