From Good Stock

Every year I swear off the whole tradition. Every New Year’s Day the alarm rings too early, my head burns too bright, and the sun blares too loud outside my window. Morning, and the new year, have again come too soon. I want to go back to sleep. But I have a tradition to keep. Every January 1, I haul out my 12-quart pot, assemble my ingredients, brew another pot of coffee, and make chicken stock. My grandmother used to insist on pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. Some of my friends swear by black-eyed peas and collards; others—more friends, not me, of course—can barely manage anything but Advil and Gatorade until well into the afternoon.

I have my own ritual.

I keep a Ziploc bag in the freezer, jagged with chicken carcasses. I have been saving the bones of three or four rotisserie hens, as well as a stray leg-and-thigh joint here and there from other meals.

When I unzip the plastic and empty the bag into my stockpot, the whole mass hangs together, bearded with freezer frost, a macabre bouquet. By the end of the day, these bones will snap between my fingers like dry bark. All the material that makes for strong bones also makes for good stock.

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The word itself is more than 1,100 years old—a squat, Germanic syllable, stocc, describing “a tree-trunk deprived of its branches,” a stump. In this sense, stock is both an origin and an end, as any tree cut down to its stump must have sprouted from the stump in the first place. Almost 800 years later, in John Fletcher’s Bonduca, stock becomes “the original form from which something is derived.” Stock has to do with family and roots, with heartwood and bloodwood.

For me, stock began with the desire to claw at those roots. I remember my grandmother at Thanksgiving, gathering up the shreds of the skeletal turkey like a gambler scrambling to collect a pot. I remember the mysterious bags of bones in her freezer. I never saw her making stock, though; I saw only the finished soup, brought steaming to my bedside to heal all ills. Is it only my nostalgia—or something more—that made those meals so much better than my own? How did they become something more than food?

Something medicinal, shamanic? I can no longer ask her. The particular alchemy I’m seeking remains a mystery, renewed each time I look in on the stockpot while my glasses fog over.

In French, the term for stock is fonds de cuisine, which, as Julia Child notes, “means literally the foundation and working capital of the kitchen.” I linger over the economic connotations of the word “capital.” Stock is certainly a matter of making the most from a scarcity of resources.

What my grandmother learned as necessity in the Great Depression enabled me, in part, two generations later, to grow up as privileged as I am. Only the luckiest among us must teach ourselves to use what we would otherwise waste. Because I no longer eat the sauerkraut she once foisted upon us, I need all the luck I can get. Learning to make stock, as she used to do, seems a reasonable substitute, a solid base on which to balance the coming year. So I assemble the various scraps and shreds of what came before and attempt to make of them something new, something to build on, as the old pagans saved the stub end of the burned Yule Log to light the next year’s fires.

A few pounds of bones and cuts to start. Lots of wings and feet (when I can get them) for the gluey collagen in all that connective tissue. Four carrots, four celery stalks split in half, a large yellow onion, quartered, with the skin on (for color), one leek, handfuls of thyme and parsley sprigs, two bay leaves, two whole cloves of garlic, ten or so whole peppercorns, and about two gallons of filtered water to cover. The rest happens on its own, over about eight hours of bare simmer.

“Chicken stock isn’t something you make, it’s something you do,” Ruth Reichl writes. But chicken stock is just as much something you don’t do. What happens is mostly done without me, as I go about the rest of the day, while the aroma blooms throughout the house. From time to time I look in, quietly, as one checks on a sleeping dog. Every so often—as the vegetables stew and the liquid takes on the golden color, as collagen thickens into gelatin—I skim the scum from the surface.

If I close my eyes and let my glasses fog in the steam, I can remember my grandmother bringing me a bowl of soup and a hot toddy, guaranteed to heal all ills. I could use a bit of healing this morning—but, for God’s sake, no whiskey.

By the time I fill the sink with ice water, strain the liquid through a sieve, discard the solids and chill the stock as rapidly as possible, the sun has set again. The day is done, but I have something to show for it, at least. Having kept the tradition, I have something else—a few quarts of it at least—to keep. And I have a whole year to discover what else can come from good stock.