WORDS Brent Rosen PHOTOS Jon Kohn
I’m a pulley bone evangelist and I’ve come today to preach. Witness the pulley bone transform dry, tired, white meat into moist, delicious chicken tenderloin. Forsake the false idolatry of the boneless, skinless, chicken breast. Open yourself to the possibility that white meat as you know it has been wrong your entire life.
To the uninitiated: the pulley bone is the top portion of the chicken breast. Normally, chicken breasts are removed from the breast bone and halved, creating the familiar half-heart shape you see on the shelves at your local grocery store. But there is another way. Instead of removing the breasts from the bone in halves, you can chop perpendicular to the breast bone, taking only the rounded tops of the breast. When you cut breasts this way the pulley bone -- or “wish bone” -- remains in the chicken. Hence the name.
After you eat the meat, you play with the bone. Two people take either side of the pulley bone in their fingers, and pull. The person who ends up with the long side gets to make a wish. Growing up, I remember fighting for the privilege of making a wish over the pulley bone in our family’s Thanksgiving turkey, but never knew the same delight could be derived from a chicken. Unfortunately, most of America forgot the pulley bone. The tastiest part of the chicken, lost.
If you are reading this article in Montgomery, Alabama, however, get excited. You live in one of the last places in America where pulley bones remain readily available. You also have something to look forward to: Montgomery will be the site of a pulley bone revival.
It’s Tuesday at 8 o’clock in the morning and I’m standing behind a butcher’s counter at Derk’s Filet and Vine wondering if I’ve worn the wrong shoes. Derk likes to butcher the chickens himself, and he’s invited me to watch him cut pulley bones. The butchering room centers around a cutting table, with packs of knives hanging from several magnetized strips along the walls. A drain opens under the cutting table. I have a good idea why Derk needs that drain. I hope it won’t get too messy. I wish I’d worn boots.
Derk cuts the chickens with a scimitar. Really. The scimitar runs a foot long, curved, serrated, sharp. He works the knife through the chicken, fast. The edge of the blade never breaks contact with the chicken; each twist of the knife yields another piece: 2 wings, 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 breasts, and the subject of our story – the pulley bone. To get the pulley bone, you press the chicken down, breast side up, and start a cut through the center of the breast. Allow the knife to glide along the angle of the breast bone toward the cutting board, until the knife exits the top of the chicken near the neck. Once removed, you have two pieces of skin-on, round-edged breast held together by the pulley bone.
The pulley bone belongs to a family of meats known as “butcher’s cuts.” Butcher’s cuts are the pieces of meat not regularly eaten by the general public but loved by food purveyors. For example, consider the hangar steak. This piece of meat is tender, full of flavor, and inexpensive, yet although it’s been part of the cow since domestication, the hangar steak remained almost unknown until the early 2000s. The reason? Butchers would take hangar steak home for themselves rather than sell it in their shops. Hangar steak escaped the home refrigerators of butchers only after trendy restaurant chefs began clamoring for hangar steak on their menus.
Like the rest of the members of its butcher cut family, pulley bones are relatively cheap, relatively unknown, and the pulley bone cut can be removed from the “commercial cuts” without anyone noticing. I asked Derk why I couldn’t get raw pulley bones from any other grocery store in town. He identified corporate culture as the culprit. Derk explained, “I once tried to show a butcher in Texas a better way to cut sirloin. They would have made more money and sold more meat if they’d done it my way, but the butcher told me he couldn’t change the way meat was cut because corporate wouldn’t allow it.” Unlike a corporate owned grocery store or butcher shop, Derk independently owns his business, meaning he can be creative and do what he likes. Since Derk likes pulley bones, he sells them.
Louis Prima is best known for “Jump, Jive, and Wail,” a song featured in a GAP commercial during the Swingers-fueled, proto-hipster, swing-dance revival that lasted for about 30 minutes in the late 90’s. But Prima’s “Closest to the Bone, Sweeter is the Meat” has more relevance for our conversation about pulley bones. In that song, Prima sings, “that last slice of Virginia Ham is the best that you can eat/don’t talk about my baby, she’s slender but she’s sweet/closest to the bone, and sweeter is the meat.” Prima probably never realized it, but his lyrics drop some serious meat science.
Cooking meat bone-in prevents the escape of moisture and allows for longer cooking times without sacrificing flavor. For white meat chicken, cooking bone-in, skin-on, prevents the chicken from drying out and turning into flavorless nothing. The pulley bones themselves release moisture as the connective tissue surrounding the bones breaks down, and the thin layer of fat beneath the skin of the breast renders, further adding moisture and flavor as the chicken cooks.
I like to cook pulley bones in a cast-iron skillet. I buy them from Derk and have them covered in “Derk’s Dirt,” his proprietary blend of herbs and spices that makes Colonel Sanders look like a hack, and then I let the chicken sit for a few hours to absorb the rub. Butter and oil go into the skillet over medium-high heat, and once the fat glistensand is near smoking, in goes the chicken, skin side down. Five or so minutes later, flip and sear the bottom side of the chicken for another three or four minutes. Then move the whole skillet to a 350 degree oven, insert a meat thermometer, and pull out the pulley bones out once they reach 170 degrees. It should take 15 or so minutes.
Now you have pan seared pulley bones. Cut through the crisped skin and have a bite. You will initially think your chicken is undercooked because it will be dripping with moisture. Hold the piece of chicken you’ve just cut up to the light so you can decide that indeed, it is cooked through. Have another bite, this time confirming your initial thought: this is the tastiest, juiciest white meat you have ever eaten. Now, make like Louis Prima and locate the pulley bone. There is a piece of meat in between the forks of the pulley bone, and you’ll want to pop it out with your fingers. This is not the time for silverware. Taste. Truly, the sweetest meat.
I did not realize pulley bones were an anachronism until meeting Mary Ann Merritt, owner of Martin’s Restaurant on Carter Hill Road. Mary Ann explained that pulley bones were a product of Alabama’s more agrarian past, the featured player for post- church Sunday suppers. Even though she grew up in Montgomery, Mary Ann and her family would travel the 40 miles to Clanton every Sunday for supper at her grandparent’s house. Sunday meant time to break down a whole chicken into its component parts, time to let the chicken tenderize in a buttermilk bath, time to fry the pieces a few at a time in a cast-iron skillet. Mary Ann saw her cousins and aunts and uncles every Sunday, a connection lost for her own children. “We’ve lost the traditional Sunday, and we’ve lost the traditional family time,” Mary Ann said. “Grandmas and mother’s cooking with a big spread on the table now only happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The fast pace of modern life not only victimized family time, but also made the pulley bone an endangered species. In order to have pulley bones, you need to know how to break down a chicken. While at one time this simple butchery was common knowledge, the commercialization and industrialization of food production has rendered this knowledge obsolete for the average person. Why learn to break down a chicken yourself when you can go to the grocery store and get a package of your favorite cuts for less than the cost of an entire chicken? The average household is happy to outsource chicken processing to Tyson; the savings of time and money seem like a win-win.
Commercialization and industrial food production can also be blamed for the pulley bone’s disappearance from restaurant menus. “The pulley bone is rare because you have to have employees that know how to cut chicken,” Mary Ann said, “it’s a lot easier to call and say ‘I need three casesof wings, three cases of legs, and three cases of thighs’ than it is to cut the chickens yourself.” Pulley bones take time. When the chickens arrive at Martin’s, they need to be washed, prepared and then cut, a lengthy process. Most restaurants are simply unwilling to spend the extra time needed to prepare chicken the old-fashioned way.
Mary Ann explained Martin’s sells the most pulley bones on Sunday. Sunday customers tend to be regulars, folks looking to recreate the slower, more family-oriented, post-church meals of their youth. Twice in recent months a woman has ordered 150 pulley bones from Martin’s to take with her to Atlanta for a Sunday supper. 150 pulley bones means 150 chickens to butcher. While it might be easier for Martin’s to just order cut chicken from their food supplier and stop serving pulley bones, Martin’s continues to offer them. Why? Because, Mary Ann says, “customers who know what pulley bones are want them.”
Thinking about pulley bones, thinking about my conversations with Derk and Mary Ann, I couldn’t help but think about the 60’s-era Ziegler Meats commercial starring Coach Bear Bryant that airs during Alabama football games. Coach Bryant handles the voiceover work, but I’m more interested in the background images. Long, slow shots of packaged meat on grocery store shelves, punctuated by pictures of women and children freed from hunger and drudgery by the affordability and convenience of Ziegler’s meats.
You can feel from the commercial that in the 1960’s, people looked at processed meat as a harbinger of a better future. The advertisement’s subtle but unmistakable message: modernity demands the same industrial processes used to make cars should be used to make food. In the booming post-war era, butchering and preparing your own meats seemed downright prehistoric. With 60 years of hindsight, you can see in this commercial the pulley bone’s cause of death.
But the time of the pulley bone’s resurrection draws near. About a month ago, I ate a long, late brunch at Husk Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. I was there with some food writer friends, and we ordered Husk’s secret menu item -- fried chicken. As we waited for the chicken to arrive, all of us argued over who would have to eat the breasts. No foodie worth their truffle salt would ever eat fried white-meat chicken, knowing that it’s quick to dry out and lacks dark meat’s flavor. When the chicken arrived, we poked it around and were thrilled to see only thighs and legs in the parchment-paper lined bowl. At Husk,
no one gets stuck with the white meat.
The pulley bone’s next life will be lived in that parchment-lined bowl at Husk and restaurants like it across the South. First, The moist deliciousness of the pulley bone changes minds about the utility of white meat. Next, the pulley bone is a cut of chicken almost no one has ever heard of, a new “exotic” cut to wow restaurant diners. Finally, the pulley bone drips with Southern heritage, the meat equivalent of sorghum, or heirloom tomatoes, or moonshine. Pulley bones check all the boxes necessary for placement on a “New-South” restaurant’s menu, so expect to see them there soon. And once the pulley bone starts showing up at trendy restaurants, it’s only a matter of time before this “butcher’s cut” crosses over and becomes available at your local grocery store.
With this prediction in mind, people and restaurants of Montgomery -- let’s get in front of this trend now. Derk will sell you raw pulley bones and tell you how to cook them. Martin’s, Eastbrook Café and Red’s Little Schoolhouse (among others) will serve them to you fried. Start to get a feel for them because the pulley bone is unknown almost everywhere but Montgomery. Let’s stake our claim to this piece of culinary heritage, and maybe, just maybe, when the pulley bone makes it big, people will call it the “Montgomery Cut.”