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.