Cooking with Bone Charcoal

When conducting zooarchaeological analysis, I often come across bone fragments that have been heavily charred or even calcined—burned so badly they become a chalky white or gray with varying degrees of distortion.  To calcine a bone, it must be heated repeatedly at high temperatures.  I usually interpret this in 19th century contexts to mean that the household was disposing of their animal remains from meals in their stoves.  Bone grease not only provided extra fuel, but by burning off the remainder of the flesh and marrow before putting bones in the trash, housekeepers greatly reduced the smell.  In large cities where people lived close together, trash pits were in close proximity to residences for easy of disposal before municipal trash removal became a common service.  Naturally, people in the past would want to reduce the smell of their trash as much as possible, as we do today with covered trash bins and plastic bags, so they would burn it, bury it, or throw it in the privy.  However, I’ve never been fully satisfied with this answer.  It leaves too many unanswered questions, such as why wouldn’t burying the trash be sufficient to reduce the smell in most cases and why leave the bones in the stove long enough to become calcined?

Archaeologically, this doesn’t tell us a whole lot about foodways beyond a basic human practicality.  I know I haven’t given it more than a passing thought in my previous projects.  Food studies today have progressed far beyond subsistence, nutrition, and disposal into the realm of identity and cultural meaning.  Old animal bones can tell us quite a bit more than just what people had to eat, and this is what I was thinking about when I opened today’s news from Mother Jones and clicked on an article about sexism in the field of haute cuisine.  What struck me what not the fact that women are being trapped under a glass ceiling in the chef profession (old news, honestly), but that the restaurant Blue Hill in New York is using pork bone charcoal to add a special smoke flavor to certain dishes.

I may be late to the party on this, but the idea of bone charcoal to me opens a door into foodways of the past.  Regular charcoal briquettes that we use in our grills today are charred and compressed carbon matter, which turn white or gray when burned.  Bone charcoal made today is heated twice, once when created, and again when used as fuel, which would be sufficient to turn charring into calcination.  In the 19th century people must have been using some kind of fuel to cook, but the question of where they were getting it is important.  I’ve never made the connection before, but this is the exact same process that produces the calcined bones that we find in archaeological contexts.  I’ve already mentioned the use of bones as fuel, but it is possible that burning bones was not always an exercise in practicality, but rather a deliberate choice in taste.  If we consider taste, which is a combination of biology, learned behavior, and aesthetics, those burned bones suddenly become a lot more interesting.  The problem now is how to link current practices with the archaeological evidence.  Personal documents might be one line of evidence, as well as experimental archaeology to tease out further answers to questions of disposal and historic techniques for making charcoal.  Origins, cultural meaning, gender, and many other factors could have been involved in developing such a cooking technique in addition to taste.  Likely, there is no single answer and each instance will have to be interpreted according to historical context.  And one final question to consider in terms of taste: what else were people using to make charcoal and how were they making it?

If any of my readers have thoughts or information about bone charcoal from any time period, I would love to read them!

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