Monday, April 6, 2009

Bone Marrow, Man's Best Friend

At the counter of Wagshal’s Market in Tenleytown, I notice a picture of a dog slobbering all over his bone. According to the advertisement, all this can be mine for seven dollars per pound. Warily, I point at the bone in the picture and ask, “Is that what I just ordered?”

The butcher looks up from his meat saw and grunts, “People eat ‘em, too.” Then he’s back to business, filling the market with the high-pitched sound of saw on bone.

Yes, in addition to playing Frisbee and shaking hands, humans and canines also share a love of bone marrow.

I was turned on to marrow by Jennifer McLagan, the thin food journalist who wrote a book called “Fat.” In this ode to blubber, McLagan gives the skinny on the many benefits of eating animal fats. For one thing, fat tastes good – scientists now believe that we may have a taste receptor for fat, and some even speculate that fat is the sixth taste. But McLagan also argues that animal fat, with its balance of essential fatty-acids, is actually healthy for us.

I was especially intrigued by one of her favorite fatty dishes, roasted bone marrow, which registers eight grams of fat per tablespoon. I guess that makes me a health nut.

And so I found myself leaving Wagshal’s with a bloody bag of bones, feeling a little like Jigsaw after a really messy execution.
Back home, I followed McLagan’s simple recipe: let the bones soak in water for 24 hours to get rid of any impurities, then blast them with high heat for 25 minutes.
Soon, I was scooping the soft, warm marrow straight from the ivory. The textural experience was like slightly melted butter. The earthy smell triggered archetypal memories of scavenging the carcasses of water buffalo thousands of years ago.

“Wow, that is so good,” Marcy cried out. I was relieved to hear it – I had been concerned that my vegetarian girlfriend wouldn’t bone up to this experience. Then I realized that she was raving about the side-salad she’d made, not the marrow. But eventually she grew curious about this creamy, sensual delight. And by the end of the meal, I was wrestling her for the last unctuous pieces.

When the marrow was gone, the only thing left standing was a circle of upright bones that resembled a model of Stonehenge. I wanted to know more about this mysterious new treat, and so began an obsession that lasted two weeks. I read about marrow bones at work, chose restaurants only if they offered marrow, and made a series of return trips to Wagshal’s for more bones to play with.

Here’s what I learned:

What it is

Typically, veal or beef. Compared to the marrow of sheep, veal and beef are more popular in the kitchen because their leg bones have more marrow. My first purchase at Wagshal’s was beef marrow, but the second and third times I opted for the veal, the marrow of which I found to be smoother and creamier.


According to McLagan, in the nineteenth century, bone marrow was regarded as a health food and given to invalids and sickly kids to improve their strength. Queen Victoria, who died at the ripe old age of eighty-one, loved bone marrow so much that she had some every day.

How to get your marrow out of the bone

This all depends on how civilized you are. For the most part, I used a butter knife, but in my most debased moments, when I was starving and pieces of marrow were stubbornly clinging to bone, I’ll admit that I resorted to digging away with my fingers. I thought this worked really well, but apparently gourmets from Milan see things differently: they use a special long-handled spoon called an essatore.

Like me, Anthony Bourdain would be booted from a Milanese dinner party and banned for life. He treats his marrow bone like a Slurpee. During the Singapore episode of No Reservations, Bourdain tried bone soup and sucked down the marrow with a straw.

Where to find marrow

New York restaurants are lousy with it. Ever since Frank Bruni of the Times came out in favor of marrow, it’s been showing up on menus all over town. New York Magazine argues that we can also attribute this trend to the recession. The dish is cheap to make and can be sold at inflated prices because it’s considered a novelty.

As usual, D.C. is a step behind. I was disappointed to only find marrow at a small handful of restaurants here. Tom Sietsma of the Post, when are you going to pick up your pen and let us know that it’s okay to eat this stuff.

What goes with it

If you like the idea of eating bone marrow just because it’s trendy, but secretly you think it’s weird, then you put the marrow on a big piece of bread, and you top it with a sweet, shallot-based marmalade just to make sure there’s a fat chance you’ll actually have to taste the fat.

I’m guessing that the majority of people who go to restaurants for bone marrow do so in an effort to build their foodie credentials, not really for the taste.
I got to this conclusion after watching Felippe Newlin of pay a visit to Blue Ribbon, one of the City’s most popular places for marrow. I was disappointed to see chef and co-owner Eric Bromberg put a tiny piece of marrow onto a huge slice of bread covered in marmalade. Predictably, after a few bites, Felipe’s first comments were about the quality of the bread. Eventually, he remembered that he was supposed to be tasting marrow and noted it almost as an afterthought. By playing hide and seek with what should be the main element of the dish, chefs let their customers have their marrow and eat it, too.

If, on the other hand, your taste buds are working and you genuinely appreciate marrow, I have the following advice:
  • Do nothing to mask the flavor of the marrow. Don’t coat it in salt. Don’t douse it in marmalade. Don’t hide it in your couch and gnaw through your sofa cushions. Keep it simple. Enjoy a large spoonful of marrow straight-up.

  • Complement the taste of the bone marrow with good sides that have the right flavor profiles. The marrow is rich and luscious, so its supporting cast should be salty: caviar, or an oxtail stew with kosher salt. A side of something sour like gremolata also works well.

  • As McLagan writes, fatty foods are digested slowly, so it doesn’t take much bone marrow to fill you up. But if you find that your hunger isn’t satisfied, include an egg-based bread to munch on in between spoonings, or fingerings, of the marrow.

Is it really nutritious

Some people swear that monounsaturated fats like the ones found in marrow are important to a healthy diet. That might be true, but after two weeks of preparing nothing but marrow and other recipes from Ms. McLagan’s Fatty Opus, I was feeling bloated and moody. Last night, I proved no match for a big serving of duck rillettes, which contains 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. I put aside the rillettes, staggered to the supermarket clutching my chest, and bought a bag of fruit.


  1. bone marrow is actually good - what am I turning into?!

  2. well, you're already a flexitarian, so I'd say you're becoming an all-out carnivore. sure, it's evil, but it's worth it.

  3. I'll indulge once in a while. On bone marrow occasions.