Cooking The Bones: Pleasures Of The Table And The Grim Reaper

There’s something compelling about cooking bones.  Maybe it’s the strangeness of seeing recognizable body parts within a food culture that so successfully conceals any connection between meat and a living or dead animal.  Maybe it’s a deep memory in the brain stem of scaring off predators from their kill, gathering bones with shreds of meat, and cracking the glistening white open to suck out precious, protein-enriched marrow.  Maybe.


Look carefully at their stark beauty–pure white, blood-red, different shapes and textures, all once concealed under skin, under a hide.

φύσιs κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ.

Phusis kruptesthai philei: so reads a fragment from the scattered, torn writings of Heraclitus quoted and translated in The PreSocratic Philosophers edited by G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield. The editors point out that φύσιs means a thing’s constitution rather than the traditional rendering as “Nature”–the full phrase through the centuries offered as Nature loves to hide.  The classicist and philosopher Pierre Hadot offers five other translations in the opening chapter of his study of Heraclitus’ famous riddle, The Veil of Isis.

The constitution of each thing tends to hide (i.e., is hard to know).

The constitution of each thing wants to be hidden (i.e., does not want to be revealed).

The origin tends to hide itself (i.e., the origin of things is hard to know).

What causes things to appear tends to make them disappear (i.e., what causes birth tends to cause death).

Form (or appearance) tends to disappear (i.e., what is born wants to die).  (9-10)

As I think through each of these versions, I soon realize I’m traveling ontological lands where the nature of being appears out of necessity, as an accident, a rock or tree, or a shape and form only perceived by thought.  It’s the type of thinking Hamlet shares with an old bone.

Can we discover what lies under skin or do we only read another layer until there’s nothing at all?  And that line,

Now get you to my lady’s table and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.  Make her laugh at that.

How Hamlet contemplates the other side of the veil and rails against cosmetics.  Here he is in Act 3, scene 1.

I have heard of your paintings well enough.  God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.

Bones and work we do to prevent skin pulling tight and falling in, skulls and mascara, set a theme of illusion and a grave reality in Hamlet; while bones, globes, fruit, flowers, violins, books, and compasses appear throughout sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings in Flanders and the Netherlands offering tableaus of our passions and demise.


In Adriaen van Utrecht’s Vanitas–Still Life with Bouquet and Skull (1642) the abundance of life and wealth portray tensions between aesthetic pleasure and the bare-bones knowledge of our death.  A feasting subject as well for the banquet table.


Giovanni Martinelli’s Death Comes To The Table (circa 1630), part of the permanent collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art, dramatizes this meeting of life and death where vibrant colors of the banqueters’ clothes match the vibrancy of bread, fruit and drink at the table.  Out of shadows, a skeleton as Mr. Death appears holding an hour-glass where the sand has already runout.  Balancing this grim guest, a servant pulls back with a look of disdain, maybe judgment on his gnarled face.  Given how often plague swept through Europe from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, this painting captures the immediate and irrevocable arrival of death.  Green and black grapes, peaches, plums and pears center our view, offering a delicious repast; however, the lighting of the scene focuses us on the all-too-human response of shock, denial and awe.  A scene we find in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.  (490)

Death upends the party, tops the feast as in this scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life–amidst our laughter echo references to Martinelli’s painting, and of course, the ending scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

We sit down at a table as family and friend, as host and stranger, and with knife, fork and spoon, at least two of these quite dangerous in other contexts, cut into and lift to our mouths the remains of a once living creature, a creature probably in many ways just like us.  Death always sits down with us, and if we are well-mannered, if we’ve not used canned salmon, we negotiate the dangers and raise our glasses to the chef at the end of the meal.  And I can’t resist one more scene from The Meaning of Life, as it applies so well here, as a via negativa to my previous words, the gourmand’s journey not to life, but death.  Enjoy.

The mirrored moment of eating what is like us becomes a constant funhouse when we consider the bones all around.  Within our bodies, hidden from view, our skeleton holds us up as like Hamlet, we pick a skull out of the earth and contemplate the visible and invisible.  Consider this page from Andreas Vesalius’ De corporis humani fabrica libri septem (1543).


We also learn about the past, of what has come before us and disappeared until we reveal their bones as with this Smilodon skull from the San Diego Natural History Museum.


Our children may even play on replicas of old bones.


And as we began, the cooking of bones with all that valuable collagen enriches our bodies, and as well provides an ever present memento mori.


Bon Appétit!


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