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Climate Change Is The Enemy Of Chicken Stock

My stockpot is huge. This is not a boast. In fact it may be more like an accusation. 

Its predecessor had been tiny and flimsy and cheap, half a grade tougher and thicker than something you might sculpt out of aluminum foil. It’s probably better to think of it as a(n extremely feeble) pasta-pot—albeit one too short to do right by a pound of, say, bucatini. Fluid leaked through the crappy little rivets that held the handles on; the stock (or pasta-water) would dribble down the sides and drip into the burner and smoke. So you couldn’t even heat as much liquid as this shitty little pot might seem to fit; by the end, there’d only be as much as could burble calmly below the level of the handles. Maybe a gallon. Maybe.

I am the grandson of a Latvian man who once bought a set of clearance-priced duck decoys and mounted them decoratively in the tree out front of his home because it seemed irresponsible to pass up such a steep discount; who would mix powdered lemonade and jug wine and call it as good a Sangria as anyone ought to expect. Eastern Europe runs deep in these veins, is what I am saying. I used that piece of shit aluminum-foil coffee mug as a soup and stock and pasta pot for over a decade. It worked! You don’t throw away something that works!

One day one of the handles just came off. It happened to be over the sink at the time, and so the feeble near-gallon of salty, boiling pasta-water mostly went down the drain instead of onto the floor or onto my dick and balls, which is something to be glad about I guess. But the pot was dead. The time had come to replace the pot.

I’d like to direct your attention back up there to the duck decoy thing. That is not only the story of a person with a perhaps miscalibrated understanding of the nature or purpose of frugality. It is also the story of a person with bad shopping judgment. My grandfather was not a hunter. He had no use for duck decoys at any price. By all rights their deeply discounted price ought to have meant nothing to him: Even at one cent per duck decoy, that is not a good deal if you are a person who has no use for duck decoys. That is the appropriate price you ought to spend on duck decoys, multiplied by infinity.

Anyway, I bought a 40-quart stockpot off a restaurant supply website. Maybe you, as I have come to know about myself, are bad with picturing liquid volumes in your imagination. There was a photograph on the website of the 40-quart stockpot, with, like, the arm of a chef dropping some chopped mirepoix into it. It looked like a real big pot. It is a real big pot! But it is not a real big pot in the sense that, like, a normal person who cooks in a plausible human dwelling ought to be thinking about the phrase “real big pot.” Picture the Death Star. Picture the grey-faced working stiff who runs the operations department on the Death Star. Picture that doofus looking out an open loading bay along the vast curve of the Death Star’s side and seeing a stockpot floating in space and thinking “No way we can fit that thing in here.” I store my stockpot in the garage, is what I am saying. Imagine the Rose Bowl filled to the brim with simmering chicken stock. This is all a little bit beside the point.

Maybe you have your own stock-making routine. If you do not, here is a way to make extremely good chicken stock: Fill the bottom half of a stockpot with chicken bones or bone-in chicken parts (if you are using a 40-quart stockpot, this will necessitate the sacrifice of entire bird villages), and then fill the pot with very cold water. Then very slowly bring this water to the very gentlest of simmers—so that the surface of the water is only mildly roiling but not bubbling and certainly nowhere even in the outer vicinity of boiling—on your stovetop. Now lower the heat and maybe add some salt and throw a lid on there and let the chicken stuff simmer in there for two or three or four hours. 

Next, chuck in lots and lots of big uniformly chopped chunks of whatever good aromatic stuff you like—onions, carrots, celery, leeks, shallots, maybe some parmigiano rinds if you’re thinking of skewing Italian in your stock-uses—that can impart flavor and aroma to the stock but which can’t stand up to quite as much simmering as the chicken parts without their flavors being smeared into oblivion. Throw the cover back on and let that stuff go for another hour or so. Then, when there’s just about a half an hour left to go, tie up a little cheesecloth bundle of last-minute stuff—sprigs of thyme, parsley stems, bay leaves, black peppercorns, maybe a smashed clove of garlic—and drop it in there. (If you tie the bundle up with twine, leave a long end and tie this to the handle of your stockpot so that you can easily retrieve the bundle—the sachet d’épices, it’s called—when you’re ready.) Wait a half-hour, or maybe 40 minutes. Et voila: Chicken stock. Turn the stove off.

Now what? Now you (or I) have a gigantic fucking 40-quart oil drum of hot chicken stock—far too much to use right away, unless you were planning on serving it to everyone in a modest-sized city. The thing to do with this stuff is to store it, so that you can use it later: to soak and simmer beans, to flavor sauces, to make risotto or chicken soup, to season and drink out of mugs. To store the stock, and to ensure it keeps as long as possible, it will need to be separated carefully from the solid matter that flavored it, and it will need to have the fat removed from it. It will also need to be cooled, of course. All of this is very sensitive.

You can dump the stock through a colander, but this is a rather violent way to remove the now-mushy solids and will tend to suffuse the stock with cloudy particulate food that will make it look bad and spoil more quickly. A better approach is to ladle the clear golden liquid out of the pot one scoop at a time and pour it through a double-layer of cheesecloth into some other vessel or vessels for storage. The layer of liquid fat on top of the stock can make this annoying, and anyway the fat isn’t invited to the next stage of the stock’s existence. So the even better thing to do is to remove the fat before you remove the solids. But of course the fat is just a layer of liquid on top of another layer of liquid, and you could spend a month carefully skimming this shit off with a spoon or whatever if your goal is to remove it without also removing half of the stock. So the absolute better-est thing to do is to cool the stock first, before you do anything else with it; this will cause all of the fat to congeal into a single solid puck on top of the stock, and then all you have to do is pull the puck out of there (and cram it into a storage container and keep it in the fridge and use it as a cooking fat) and you can move onto the ladling part.

The problem, for The Ancients, was that nobody had invented the refrigerator yet. The problem for me is a descendent of that bygone one: Nobody, so far as I know, has invented an affordable consumer-grade refrigerator halfway large enough to host a 40-quart stockpot, likely not least because most consumers are not stupid enough to purchase a 40-quart stockpot. The Ancients had a solution to this, more or less, or at least to some part of it. It was called “winter.”

What you did was, you took your pot of hot stock outside into the cold winter before you went to bed, you found a reasonably safe and stable place for it, and you just parked it there, with maybe a heavy rock sitting on the lid to make things difficult for enterprising raccoons. By the next morning the stock would be cold but not yet frozen, and the fat would be a nice solid puck easily removed. Then you could move onto separating the stock from the solid food.

This is what I attempted last week, a late-January week, the dead middle of winter here in the low mountains of western Maryland where I live at elevation and where the dead middle of winter typically has been miserably cold and has necessitated much annoying snow removal. Stock-making, among all its other virtues and benefits, is a way to make a temporary and happy peace with the horrors of the worst season: If the bitter wind and thin, cruel air can freeze your nose and make the act of moving about in the outer world clad in less than a goddamn spacesuit into a nightmare vision of hell, well, shit, they can also cool your pot of stock for you, and then you can have some good stock to live by until spring. This was the idea. I have been unemployed since the day before Halloween; I was unemployed on Christmas; this has been a hard winter and it seemed important to try to make peace with something, to accomplish some damn thing.

But an uncomfortable thing I have learned about trying to broker a truce with the horrors of winter is that, if they do not appear, their absence—which I’d ordinarily welcome like a surprise visit from an old friend—becomes its own kind of horror. The stockpot was still hot to the touch the next morning, down at the bottom. Hot. I cannot express to you the queasy revulsion this aroused in me, the clammy, panicky feeling of doom. Not only that the night of January 27, 2020 hadn’t been cold enough—not nearly!—to cool a pot of chicken stock left outdoors overnight the way people at this latitude and elevation have been leaving their pots of chicken stock outdoors overnight to cool for whole actual centuries, but the sudden sharp realization that in this entire winter so far there have been maybe, what, one or two actual winter nights, that the rest of it has never gotten colder or harsher than what what once, and alarmingly recently, characterized mid-October.

I suppose I should be ashamed to admit that no story of glacial retreat or food-chain collapse, no ominously red-colored map of global temperatures, has made the changes the world has undergone just in my lifetime feel as real or as claustrophobically present as the touch of that steel pot, the sight of the still-liquid fat slicked across the surface of the stock. Maybe that’s how it works, or maybe it’s just how myopic and stupid I am. I salvaged enough stock to make Italian wedding soup with little meatballs and shreds of chicken thigh and served it with acini di pepe, and socked away three more big jars of the stock—each containing more fat than I’d like—in the freezer, the only legitimately wintery place I can get to right now, on February 1, 2020, in the dead middle of winter in the low mountains of western Maryland.

It’s not half bad stock, all in all, if a little heavy on despair.