by Ali Berlow
She started her braises in the flat grey light of winter mornings. Heavy pots of simmering meat radiated from the oven throughout
the day—scents exotic, earthy, comforting and dreamy. By the evenings she’d have the table set for one: silverware, a linen napkin in its ring, a tapered candle, a glass of red wine, and a plate of meat alongside some hearty kale or a quartered sweet potato, perhaps. She was not one prone to salads. It was meat served piping hot that mattered the most to her. Fat was what she desired. Sticky, lip-smacking tasty animal fat—the sort that rises to the greasy top of long slow braises, makes them taste so good, and congeals solid once they cool down.
No matter how fulfilling and inspired her dishes had been— lamb shoulder with cardamom, curry and dried figs; venison with juniper berries, duck fat and prunes; or hen with garlic, peppercorns and preserved lemons—the wood stove burned away all aromatic evidence during the night. Kindled with smoke they dissolved into thin air, ephemeral. She’d wake the next day in pre-dawn stillness, standing cold again in her kitchen—forgetful, dry and hungry like a ghost.
Call it habit or maybe the will to live, on any wintry morning the woman revived the routine by coaxing the ashes to dance into yellow
flames and re-filling the wood bin and the unquenchable three pots of water on the woodstove. While waiting for the teapot to boil, she’d go outside to feed the coon cat that squatted in her garage from November to thaw, fill the bird feeders, and look up. Just look…up.
Once inside, over a cup of coffee, she’d dip three fingers into a green tin of bag balm, cross her right foot over her left knee and with two hands massage the ointment in between her callused toes, over her heels and soles, then switch feet to repeat the process and slide them into a pair of boiled wool slippers to warm. Now she was ready for breakfast. Bones. Marrowbones in rich broth, some crusty bread and creamery butter. The short, squat beef shanks she’d cooked to brittle the day before.
Looking down into her morning-cold red-enameled pot, she saw sticks of whittled turnip, dice of an odd carrot and a few halved red-skinned potatoes jutting up like volcanic islands in a calm sea of beef fat that settled over undulating, gelatinous stock. Gently, she plucked out two marrowbones and spooned some of the jellied broth over them, to heat in a small iron skillet.
Each one held in its center a pip of soft, roasted marrow. Speckled dark and shrunken, the ugly squirts of fat clung perilously by some kind of anatomical-biological ligatures only G-d designed and scientists could pronounce. They bound the coveted fat captive to its surrounding walls even after long hours of slow heat with tomato, rosemary, white wine, leek and onion. Dismally tiny, tender bits of meat encircled each shank, clinging on. They’ll fall off with a glance of her spoon, but still they remained wrapped by sinew and serpentine ribbons of fat of another connective sort, smooth and elastic. Her mouth watered.
She turned on the radio for news, only out of obligation and to confirm that humanity hadn’t drowned while she slept. It reminded her why she had moved into the woods and why she’d recently been seeking comfort in the herd.
As a regular customer of Hosanna Hills Farm milk, meat, cream and eggs, she’d deferentially gained greater access to its dairy barn. It was a warm, humid and rhythmic place—the pulsating of the milk machines twice daily, the scraping of shovels through spent hay and shit, the muscular mastication between cows and cud. Hosanna’s herd seldom bellowed, as long as it was business as usual, which included the music of WRSI.
The farmer spoke to his cows only as necessary, to cajole, direct. The farmer spoke to her only as necessary, to be New England polite, respectful.
The young man was distant if not tolerant of her naïve questions about farming, the price of milk, washing bottles, and indifferent when she kept to herself. She watched him move between the massive brown, black and white bodies, their opulent udders and teats stained yellow by iodine. Creatures of habit, the cows of Hosanna seemed comfortable to their ways, his hands and voice. Both human and herd were unfaltering in their work; one made milk, the other liberated it.
Though she was no farmer and decidedly uninitiated in the ways of livestock—that is, until they ended up on her butcher block—it seemed to her that cows’ legs were vulnerable, ill-evolved things. Spindles bearing low hanging heavy weight, ending in awkwardly split hooves below knobby knees. Furthermore, those shanks were considered some of the modest cuts of beef. It was much easier to consider the cow’s four legs than her own two. It wasn’t until recently that the reflection of her naked body in the broken bathroom mirror had become unsettling. The thinning of her face, the thickening of her neck while her cleavage all but wilted. Her own legs like crochet hooks. Apparently androgyny was a symptom of growing old that no one talks about. Her doctor’s admonitions (when she listened to him) about withering and breakable bones, were at best annoying and at worst, alarmist, she thought. If she fell and broke something, it would be painful, but like a bad luck cow that slips on ice, it’d be far better if someone took charge and just put her down than to be hobbled for the rest of her days.
While her morning meal heated up, she tended again to the three pots of water steaming on the wood stove. The windows fogged with moisture. She folded laundry—crisply dried, cutout paper doll clothing—jeans, flannel, and fleece.
Sitting down to the bones, she recalled scratching the fuzzy brown ears of this one…or so she remembered. Young males calves serve little purpose on a dairy farm. “They’re just another mouth to feed,” the farmer had said, handing her a frozen package of a dozen odd cuts wrapped in white butcher paper. She’d written a check for $10, put the beef in her bag and snowshoed home in the pink twilight.
At her wooden dinner table, she dipped a finger into the last of the marrow and swirled it around what broth was still there thickening in the bowl. Satiated for the time being, she glazed her lips with a greasy fingertip like a kiss—arousing memory and marvel of breath and muscle, structure and spirit, texture and warmth.
The woman decided that after the breakfast dishes were done, she’d pick what little meat there was off the remaining shanks and add it back to the braise. Next time she went to Hosanna, she’d present this food to the farmer as a humble offering spruced up with some minced parsley, lemon zest and grated hard cheese. The rest of the marrow bones she’d keep for herself. He wouldn’t miss them. Although he’d taste them. Bones are something you can’t ignore.