Northern Michigan Travel: Winter Bones

In winter I live for the bones. From every autumn feast and solstice-time holidays, I save the bones. From the happy pigs of our CSA farm to the bold buck who raided my brothers’ fields, David and I cherish the clean kill and the resulting meat on our table—but most of all I cherish the bones. The bones are what happen in the quiet morning after the feasting, after the New Year’s party, after the community sauna. After the creature’s spirit is thanked, and the leftovers given to family and friends, I cook the bones. This is what is done so that we waste nothing of the lives our animals have given us. This is a process I cherish, for it is more real and homegrown to me than most things in this busy 21st century writer’s life. By using the bones, I honor in final thanksgiving the lives of these creatures. With bones, I make the elixir of winter. Winter soup stock.

There is a way to do this, learned from my farmer people, a way to use the last bits, to make these bones into something good, to honor the parts that gave grace and strength to the creature’s running and now come to shape our own bones. The bones are dropped unceremoniously into my favorite stainless stock pot, and as I do so, I remember these are the bones of the pigs that played all summer, or bones from the deer that led its life in open fields, or bones of the turkey who ate the leftover greens all September, and I think of how they were in the light and open. I cover the bones with our good well water, add salt and dried peppers, a little onion and a bay leaf, and if there is some local celeriac or carrot left, I chop that up and drop it in with the bones. I light the fire under the pot and let the waters come to simmer, and I let those bones cook all day long. I let the marrow spill and the meat send out its flavor. Sometimes I taste, and as I do I am filled with the warmth of this strange nectar.

My mother and grandmother did the same, teaching by example, not directly. My mother used an enamel stockpot, and my grandmother a strange copper kettle I barely remember. Both have disappeared. With children and farms, these women had little time for complex recipes—though their cakes were cherished. In that frayed kitchen, stock making was something that could go on all day with only small doses of attention. The bones from the Sunday ham became the broth for weekly soup—with beans, onion, and leftover carrots, potatoes from Aunt Ella—to feed lunch to a working family.

I remember the scent filling the house, the strong flavors making my mouth water. I remember how these women lifted the bones out of the broth with big slotted spoons, dropped them in a blue chipped bowl, and when the bones were cool, how the women pulled the last meat from them, and that meat went back into the pot. They touched every bone to make sure they had taken what it had to give. And then the bones went to something else living, yes, to the dogs or back to the pigs. The bones were rarely thrown away—it just wasn’t done in that harsh hierarchy.

I’m not able to feed the bones to another creature. But if we cook them down until they are clean, until every last bit of the good flesh is released and the marrow and flavors begin to concentrate, we have done some good service to the animal. I chill the stock, which usually means putting it on the back porch with a log on top of the pot. When it’s cold, I skim the fat off—though those long-past matriarchs never did this—they valued the fat for its warming properties. Now, here is the base for the season of winter: ham broth for those white and black bean soups, tallowy brown stock for the lentils and barleys, turkey broth for the last of the cabbage and roots.

Winter is a season where I must search a little to find my love of the world. When I’m scraping the car, I tell myself how I love the snow; when I’m navigating the winter roads, I remind myself how I love the austerity and silence of winter. Even when the wind howls, I insist this fierceness is beautiful. And here too, in the steam rising off a pot of bones, a winter beauty. Not just the metaphor of trees and weeds set like bones against the snow, but the bones of the good animals who have given their lives for our tables. I pray that someday my own bones (if they are worthy) will be cooked in good earth, and that they will feed a creature perhaps more evolved and kinder than I am.

This article and additional photos are also available in the January issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get yours today!

Article Comments