Consider the bones!

I wanted to take some time here to explain a perspective on the world of food that perhaps you might not have sat down to think about recently, if at all. This is all related to my Ph.D. research, where I’m working on a dissertation that seeks to illuminate the eating habits and cuisine of Philadelphians during the period 1750-1850. There are two ways in which I’m approaching the question of what people ate at that time, one is through documentary research, looking at cookbooks, journals, letters, account books, newspapers, inventories and the like, probably more of what you might expect for this kind of research. But here’s the kicker, I’m an archaeologist, so rather than simply employing historical research techniques, I get to incorporate a whole other class of “evidence”, namely, material culture, better known as people’s long forgotten trash. For my purposes, as an individual principally interested in historic food in this context, that means that I’m mainly relying on zooarchaeological techniques to answer my larger questions, I’m analyzing the animal bones from people’s trash (typically recovered from pits, either cisterns [used for water] or privies [a.k.a. outhouses]) that were living at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What can these bones tell us? Well they’re the remains of meals, they are some of the most direct evidence we have for what people actually served on their tables in the past. Sure the cookbooks can suggest possible recipes that may have been prepared, and this is part of what I’m going to be looking at in my research, but the bones tell us exactly what cuts of meat a particular household purchased. From analyzing these bones it is possible to see what kinds of animals were being eaten, how important each of these animals was in the diet, what the favored cuts of meat were for a particular household (and whether that reveals something about their social or economic status, or their ethnicity). It can also tell us something about the circumstances in which the animals were being raised, whether they were being raised on farms that were oriented towards meat production (i.e. their main concern was to produce animals for slaughter in the marketplace), or whether they were the excess animals from say a milk or wool production-oriented strategy.

There is a whole lot more which can be said about these topics, and assuredly I will return to them, but the main point I wanted to emphasize today is that this research has caused me to become very aware of the bones of animals and specifically of the bones in the pieces of meat, fish, and fowl that we eat. Although we no longer deposit our trash in pits in our backyards, so our own eating habits will not be traceable in the same ways by future archaeologists, it is still important to consider the messages that you might be leaving behind by the bones in your food. And if you’re a vegetarian, well the ethnobotanists of the archaeological community can help you to feel more secure in your lasting impression on the world, there are ways in which plant remains are preserved as well.

Consider this, the cuts of meat that we eat from cows, pigs, and sheep (the three main domesticated mammals that we rely upon for food), have been becoming increasingly less recognizable as parts of actual animals, and have been moving in this direction for some time now. This means a number of different things, not the least of which is a sense of disengagement for the modern grocery-shopping consumer who doesn’t have to really think too hard about where their food is coming from (though there is more and more pressure for people to really think seriously about their food and its origins as we push both local and organic foods in the 21st century). For my purposes here though, this means that there are fewer and fewer cuts of meat with any actual bone in them. And as a zooarchaeologist, thinking about the messages that are conveyed through (food) consumption practices and how these can be interpreted after the fact, that’s a pretty depressing fact. Not only will we not be able to look at the individual eating habits of particular people and households in the future because of central trash collection and landfills, but the trash that is headed there in the first place does not contain the same information about the eating habits of its originators as the trash from say the period that I’m looking at. Just something to think about…

The main point I wanted to come to in this post is that I have, through my research, become extremely and intensely focused on the boney aspects of animal species around me. This may be in terms of trying to identify unknown bones in my samples or collecting new materials for the comparative collection we have in our lab. Now a comparative collection is of utmost importance in a zooarchaeological lab because you are really only as good at your identifications of the bones in your samples as your comparative collection. There are books with drawings available, but this is no substitute for bones from real animals. Because our lab is relatively new and I’m one of the few people doing serious research in there at the moment, this has meant that I’ve had to track down my own comparative materials and sometimes skeletonize animals for myself. At the moment, this has mainly been confined to a few pigs’ feet (which I bought in the Italian market) and a catfish. I wanted to give you a little taste of the catfish here.

I’d never baked a whole fish before so this was definitely a new experience for me. After a few minutes of frustration in Chinatown dealing with language barrier problems I did eventually manage to procure a catfish, which I brought home to prepare in the oven. I did some research and decided I would simply put it in a aluminum foil pouch with some olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and let it go at about 400º F for 25 minutes or so. Simple recipe and simple but good results. I was impressed with how easy this really was. Just bake it until the flesh can be flaked with a fork.

Here’s the main thing that I really wanted to bring to your attention though, think about all the bones that were produced from this one simple meal. Think about where they’ll go (mine will go to the lab). But the next time you’re buying anything with bones in it, just stop to consider the kinds of information that is embedded in that food once you throw it in the trash for future archaeologists to come along and try to decipher. Was it an expensive cut of meat? Did you just but a fish head to make fish head soup because it’s a favorite old family recipe? Perhaps just to remember that your meal lasts a whole lot longer than you might have considered it did.

Explore posts in the same categories: catfish, culinary history, Food, recipe, zooarchaeoloy

One Comment on “Consider the bones!”

  1. taylor Says:

    Interesting work!

    I have a friend who might make it to tomorrow’s potluck that lives on a farm that raises their own meat. If you’re looking for bones to take back to the lab, I’m sure they’d let you watch a slaughter and take the bones home with you. Cows, pigs, goats, lambs, chickens, duck, turkey, pheasants…

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