“Bryan, what are you doing?” Cam demanded, his voice collapsing into the register of parental exasperation.
My hand, grasping a ladle full of steaming amber liquid, froze in mid-air. Cam had rounded the corner of the kitchen in the midst of preparing our apartment for a dinner party, a duster in one hand and fresh tea lights in the other. I wondered what the hell he could be talking about at this late hour: I was making the risotto, of course, and worrying about having the cobbler prepped for dessert, and trying to find a moment to get the counters wiped down, and—oh God, the stock. He was talking about the stock. Vegetarians were at that moment speeding up the express subway track toward our home, and, despite my efforts to craft a menu that would appease them, I had just failed by using chicken stock in the mushroom risotto … or had I?
I flashed my chilliest Stepford smile at him as I gently stirred the liquid into the hissing pot. “You won’t say a word, will you, sweetie?”
I should probably apologize for this supposedly egregious violation, but for some reason, the words choke in my throat. For starters, the addition of my carefully crafted homemade stock to the risotto was not malicious. In my daily cooking, the ingredient is as basic as kosher salt and freshly ground pepper; I reach for a half-cup of it to thin a sauce or enrich weeknight rice just as I would somnambulistically reach for the AC remote in the middle of a steamy August night. In other words, it was an accident.
But the more I meditate on this issue, the more I think that it is not I who should feel guilty, even for an honest mistake. After all, one version of a saying by none other than famed gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin tells us that “stock to a cook is like voice to a singer.” Can you really justify taking away my voice? When I have vegetarians over for dinner, I’m already making a sacrifice by forgoing a real entrée in favor of a meatless one. Fairness and common sense would argue that, in return, vegetarians shouldn’t make a big deal about some small amount of a near-invisible (if crucial!) liquid. I’ve compromised my culinary integrity enough already—now it’s your turn: Vegetarians and vegans, chicken stock does not count as meat.
I bet if you actually understood what stock is—which is to say, it’s not, like, chicken juice—you’d agree with me. Considered foundational to many of the world’s cuisines, stock is the complex-yet-unassuming core of quality home cooking. It contains essentially all the flavor components needed in savory preparations—aromatic (onion, carrot, celery), herbal (parsley, bay, thyme), spice (pepper and fennel), and yes, animal—while ideally emphasizing none of these at the expense of any other. Like the classic 12-bar blues chord progression, somewhat blank on its own yet pregnant with infinite melodic possibilities, stock’s quiet depth makes it the ideal backdrop for all manner of more assertive flavors. Stock is inarguably one of a handful of factors that separate the kitchen dilettante from the serious home cook.
I know what some of you will be thinking right about now: “Why not just use vegetable stock?” I asked a very similar question of a Ferrari driver the other day. “Fine automobile connoisseur,” I said, “in place of golden-hued, high-grade gasoline, why not use a chunky sludge of rotting leaves and other decaying organic matter to fuel your luxury driving machine?” He, suffice it to say, was not interested in my suggested fuel alternative—which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the liquefied compost heap marketed as “vegetable stock.” Plus, most dishes already contain fresh vegetables—where a real stock adds umami and a bit of thickening gelatin, weak vegetable broth offers little more than the unpleasant sense that the dirty water at the bottom of a salad spinner bowl was accidently spilled into the pot somewhere along the way. No thanks.
That said, a little chicken goes a long way in a good stock. According to the food scientist Harold McGee, only about 5 percent of chicken stock comes from the chicken, “mainly gelatin and other soluble proteins and amino acids (e.g. MSG), minerals, traces of fat, and aroma chemicals, mainly aldehydes derived from the fats.” Clearly, that 5 percent does a lot of work when it comes to taste and consistency, but the actual amount of meat substance that ends up on each plate is minuscule.
I am aware that those herbivores who possess a strange, almost metaphysical fear of contamination will remain impervious to my logic. But I know for a fact that many other vegetarians are hardy, practical folk who just care about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals. I’m with you on all that! Which, actually, is one of the main reasons I make stock. If I’m going to roast an organic, free-range, hazelnut-fed chicken, the most respectful thing I can do afterward is to make the most of the remaining flesh and bone, which most people just toss out. I’m being a responsible, frugal meat eater by doing this—can’t vegetarians acknowledge my effort by letting slide the few tablespoons that might end up in their soup?
I’d hope so, because, to be honest, to do otherwise is really rude. While I realize that etiquette is on the wane at this late date, I maintain that it is very impolite to straight-up refuse something someone has taken the time to make for you (and the other, probably carnivorous people present) because of your personal preference. Doing so belies a valuing of the self over the collective, and the misapprehension that the host is your servant and not a generous peer taking time out of her schedule and money out of her wallet to feed you in good faith. Unless a little chicken stock is going to literally kill you via a spectacularly violent allergic reaction, graciously accepting even just a little of the affected dish is the civilized thing to do, especially if your host tried to accommodate you with an otherwise vegetarian meal. (And if you feel tempted to suggest that she take the time to whip up some creepily earthy vegetable stock to make a special, separate batch of risotto just for you, check yourself with these wise word: Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
I’m not naïve; I realize that for some partisans, no invocations of science, ethics, or good manners will be enough to convince them that stock is the special, compromise-worthy case I’m suggesting. Which is why, in the end, perhaps the tried-and-true model of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the best policy. We all know that if I didn’t tell you there was a little chicken stock in that veggie stir fry, you wouldn’t know and therefore couldn’t care. You would just recognize, in the less radicalized, more human parts of your soul, that the ingredients I had assembled for you in the pan were freaking delicious and be grateful for the passing brush with gustatory happiness. Some militant types have derisively compared this kind of unspoken agreement to slipping cocaine unadvertised into a batch of blueberry muffins, but I don’t see the problem. If a baker thought so highly of me that he was willing to break the law in crafting what would surely be a unique muffin experience, I guarantee you that complaint would be the furthest thing from my mind.