“What I really need is a bovine metatarsus,” I said.
The butcher was silent for a moment, staring at me as if sizing me up for a styrofoam tray and wondering if he had enough shrinkwrap to do the job. Finally, he said, “You want a what?”
“A cow’s metatarsus. It’s the lower leg bone,” I explained. “Any is good, but front is best because they’ll be a bit more manageable.”
“Soup bones are over there.” He gestured vaguely toward the meat cases.
“All you have are ham bones and ox tails. I need a meta… a leg bone,” I insisted. “From a cow.”
“Can I just come back there and look?” I craned my neck around the corner toward the door of the walk-in cooler, just out of reach of curious customers. “I grew up on a farm. I’ll wear gloves, a mask, whatever I need.”
“We don’t do that kind of thing here; we’re a grocery store.”
“It’s for a project.” I gave him my best academic look on the off chance it would make a difference. “It’s educational.”
He shrugged and averted his gaze, obviously hoping the strange man with the cow leg fixation would just go away. Finally I did. No use asking him to direct me to a proper butcher. I knew when I’d been beat.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
The part about growing up in farm country is true. I’m from a small town in rural Missouri. The part about growing up on the farm was stretching it a bit since it was my grandpa’s farm, but suffice to say that I was around a lot of cows and a lot of dairy farmers from an early age.
If I needed a cow bone in Missouri, I’m pretty sure a couple of phone calls would get me one without too much fuss. May be true here too, and I just don’t know the right numbers to dial.
Tacoma, Washington (where my wife and I work) is not in dairy country. It’s a city, urban by any definition, and the butchers around here don’t get whole sides or ever really see the whole cow. They’re mostly in the backs of grocery stores. Which more properly categorizes them as meat cutters, I think (feel free to check me on that) as opposed to butchers in the classical sense — their meat comes precut into primals from the packer and they slice it into steaks or grind it or whathaveyou.
All of which means no legs.
No pinner’s bone.
I should explain. As I explained yesterday, a pin maker used a bone as a sort of specialized tool bench for making pins. The metatarsus of a cow or sheep were preferred because they are large and dense and can be grooved in many directions to allow for different dimensions of pin.
In all honesty I have no idea whether or not it matters whether I use a pin or a block of wood or the anvil of my vise. They used a bone, so I want a bone if I can get one.
One of the biggest obstacles to period crafts as a general rule is the simple fact that modern urban-dwellers do not have the access to the same materials as our early modern predecessors. Now, as then, every part of a butchered animal is used from hoof to moo, but that doesn’t mean I can get at it. At least not very easily.
So I called around and discovered what happened to all of them. It’s the dog’s fault. The first pet store I called said “Yeah, we have cow leg bones. C’mon over and take a look!”
So after work, to the pet store we go. There, I find a display of procine and bovine bits sawn down to manageable sizes for all walks of dog. About half of them are bleached white and filled with some sort of meaty corn syrup goo (yes really) and I didn’t want anything to do with those. The rest were apparently smoked with a bit of the meat still on them and I bought a selection to experiment with.
A lot of things in the Elizabethan world were made of bone and horn, so this is going to be a learning experience that will pay dividends later on.
I bought two sections of a sliced-up joint because the pinners apparently liked to slice planes off the bones to make a more stable work surface (one of the reasons they favored the lower leg bones, no doubt) and a hunk of a bovine metatarsus, just because I could.
They cost me about $6.00 and I didn’t even need a dog to share them with.
Tomorrow evening I will go outside and see if I can clean them with a nice, gentle boil or if I’m going to have to try something more drastic. It’s going to be cold, but the Engineer insists that bone boiling is not an inside task. Bother.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the meanwhile, here are some resources on pinner’s bones:
- A pinner’s bone cataloged at the UK Finds Database: https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/745270 with more linked at the bottom of the record.
- Another pinner’s bone at Oxford: http://excavatingpittrivers.blogspot.com/2013/06/antler-and-bone.html
- An article about bone objects – including pinner’s bones – posted by the York Archeological Trust. http://www.dighungate.com/content.asp?id=176
Edited 7/26/2018 to update broken links