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Meet the "Food Person" Who Never Makes Stock

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He ended up with the carcass.

"No? You sure?" one of my three older brothers asked me, blushing over his osseous prize.

"Totally," I nodded from the kitchen sink, the gnawed cuticles of my fingers camouflaged by soap bubbles. "You should have it."

Photo by James Ransom

And so ended this past year's version of the dance we do every time our Thanksgiving bird has been relieved of its meat. Bones and extra bits sit on the fat-slicked carving board, praying for an afterlife. I feign a wish to resurrect it into congee or some other extraordinary something. I "let" my brother and his wife (and their dog) take it to their home in downtown Baltimore, where they’ll make stock out of it and finish every last drop. My parents smile at the notion of our resourcefulness and at my kindness in giving the carcass up to someone without a culinary degree, someone who might learn from the practice.

I’m a "food person," the kind who’s supposed to take thrill in squeezing every last bit of flavor out of the wing tips. Ten years ago, when the pulp of that piece of paper stamped with my name and a Le Cordon Bleu logo was frosty white, I did. I crisped discarded fish skin into salty chips and pickled zucchini butts and made vegetable stock out of carrot skin shavings. The test kitchens of the offices I was privileged to call my homes away from home—first at The San Francisco Chronicle, then at Food & Wine—were brimming with fresh produce, ancient grains, and tempting leftovers, and my home kitchen was equally enthusiastic. Both spaces were full and organized, but not precious. That quart container of vinaigrette would be eaten—maybe the dregs would even swiped out of the container by one hungry snacker’s nub of bread—and the stock would be used up. That Lexan full of liquid gold was so confident in its popularity, in fact, that a roll of duct tape and a black Sharpie sat next to it, in order to label the next batch. More stock would come.

During my time as an editor at Bon Appétit, which began in my mid twenties, my kitchen changed. I downsized apartments, selling my bar stools to a former intern whose living space, newly shared with her boyfriend, needed filling. Two colleagues got engaged—to each other. By 28, I realized I hadn’t replaced my kitchen Sharpie for three years.

I had always figured that by that age, I would have had home life settled. I would roast a chicken every other Sunday, I would make stock out of it and freeze it for some brilliant stew a month later, and I would shred the meat for lunch salads that my husband and I would take to work throughout that week. This is not some barefoot-and-pregnant-in-the-kitchen idea of wifehood I inherited from an older generation of women. I never doodled a long white dress on scrap paper as a girl, and I still don't necessarily want marriage with a capital M. I want to make a home with someone, though. I want to feed him sometimes and I want him to feed me sometimes, and I've always imagined that our warm, buzzing kitchen would be fueled by stock. You may associate a sturdy wine collection with adulthood; I associate making stock with a life worked out.

Photo by James Ransom

Now 33, two great loves married to simpler girls, I've lost that stock-loving feeling, maybe because I've lost hope that I'll ever reach my stock-making reality.

"It's so easy, though," a fellow food writer to whom I admitted my little bouillon secret reacted, his nose scrunched like a ball of aluminum foil at the bottom of the trash bin. You may be thinking the same thing, considering this essay lives on a website that counts the nation’s most avid home cooks among its millions of unique monthly visitors. (Gosh, there are millions of you making your own stock…) My admission, I thought, was going to gain me some solidarity—a one-liner, at least, about the great paradox of food writers and chefs: We spend all day either teaching people how to cook or feeding them, then we arrive home to shove cold cereal into our mouths before bed.

Yes you're right: Homemade stock requires little doing. It will stay good in the freezer for up to two months. And when you take this time to make good stock, it is, ultimately, the best shortcut to delicious soups, braises, beans, and grains. You're right! But I just don't want to do it for me, myself, and I.

Earlier this spring, I spent the night at my dear friend Lindsey's house. Her devotion has lasted me from my childhood in Maryland to this day, and I adore her husband and her two boys, one of whom is my godson. In the otherwise still of the morning, I heard a whimper from across the hall, and just as soon, I saw Lindsey emerge from the duskiness with Sam in her arms. "Look at that, it's Aunt Julia! She slept right next to you all night!" she said as they peered into the guest room and I smiled at them from under the covers, reassuring a sleepy, confused Sam that all was safe in the Stone household. They walked upstairs to the master bedroom and the house went quiet again.

An hour later, I had to be on my way home. I got dressed, tiptoed upstairs, and walked into the master bedroom to find all four members of the family—Brandon, Lindsey, little Sam, and littler Keiran—eyes shut in the master bed, chests rising and falling gently. It was one of the most tender moments I have ever experienced, and it wasn’t even mine.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

After kissing them all on the cheeks, I exited through the kitchen, but not before taking a look inside the refrigerator. Apples, applesauce, cottage cheese, sliced deli meats and cheeses, two loaves of bread, heads of broccoli and cauliflower, and, in the freezer: ice cream, ground beef, and, there it was, chicken stock. All of it will be consumed, I thought; this is a full house, not counting the grandparents and the cousins who swing over for the not-so-occasional weeknight supper.

I started having friends over for Sunday dinners after that. I often roast a chicken for them, but I never keep the bones for stock, nor do I pretend to. Into a Ziploc bag and home with someone else they go.

Julia Bainbridge is our first Writer in Residence; you'll be seeing her writing on Food52 quite a bit in the coming months. Please say hello!

Tags: Long Reads, Essay