Please Pass the Scavenged-Bone Soup

There's no reader question this week. Instead, Helena wants to address a question raised on Chowhound.

I'm all in favor of thrift in the kitchen—saving your old Parmesan rinds to enrich soups, for example, or repurposing yesterday's stodgy cold risotto as today's arancini di riso. But where is the line between leftovers and garbage? Or, as a fascinating thread on Chowhound asks: Is it OK to scavenge the bones from your guests' plates in order to make chicken stock?

Despite what some Chowhounds claim, this practice is not hazardous. Saliva is laden with germs, but unless you are making out with the person in question, you are unlikely to pick up their germs. In an email, Dr. Byron Brehm-Stecher, assistant professor of food science at Iowa State University, explains: "[M]any of these [saliva-borne germs] can't stand atmospheric concentrations of oxygen, let alone extended boiling. Further, unless the chicken-eaters are drooling, the amount of saliva deposited on the bones will not be much and it will also be diluted (in addition to being boiled) when water is added to make the stock."

But although it's "safe" to make scavenged-bone stock, that doesn't mean it's OK. It's probably safe to eat other people's boogers too, if they've been boiled. Sorry to gross you out, but my point is this: Once someone has rejected a food, eating it becomes taboo. You can't use that item to make a meal for someone else. This might not make scientific sense, but taboos don't have to. Yes, it's wrong to waste food, but you should only recycle other people's leftovers if you're starving. Otherwise, there's no need to act like a Depression-era farm wife struggling to feed your family on a couple of moldy turnips.

If you insist on recycling items from people's plates, you could traumatize your guests for life. Julia Scheeres, author of the memoir Jesus Land, recalls that her mother took not only bones from people's plates, but also whatever else they hadn't eaten. She saved the scrapings in a container in the freezer and regularly boiled them all up with some hamburger meat—a concoction she rightly called Garbage Soup. Scheeres believes this experience permanently impaired her ability to enjoy food.

In any case, cooked bones don't even make very good stock, explains Samin Nosrat, a professional cook, writer, and teacher in Berkeley, California. By contrast, "raw bones still have the marrow and gelatin, which has not been cooked out of them." She advises the home cook to do the same as restaurant kitchens: Buy the whole chicken; then you can use the head and feet in the stock—"They add body and substance and structure." (Chowhounds agree.) If you want to use the bones as well, remove the meat and cook it separately.

Personally, I recommend serving the meat on the bone, even if it means you'll have to do without those bones in your stock. As I've said before, eating food with your fingers is a wonderful communal bonding experience. One of the greatest dinner parties I ever attended involved Dungeness crabs served without plates or silverware. Those discarded crab shells and legs with shreds of meat still clinging to them could have made a great stock, but it would have really spoiled the atmosphere if the hostess had carefully collected them up to make Garbage Bisque.

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