Bones Over Beans

Nestled on the corner of Greene Street and Waverly Place is a small booth where a growingly popular hot drink is doled out in coffee cups through a window. The cups, however, do not contain the latest fair trade grounds or unicorn lattes, but bone broth. Joe O’Sullivan opened Barney’s Bone Broth in the Winter of 2016, only two years after the city’s first broth-serving counter, Brodo, introduced the concept of soup on the go. Since opening, O’Sullivan has seen consumer interest in consommé bubble. 

“When we first opened, if we said ‘We sell bone broth,’ customers would have said, ‘What?’ But now customers respond, ‘Oh yeah, I think I read something about that.’ In general, Barney’s Bone Broth plays a small part, but it’s noticeable that more people are in tune with bone broth,” says O’Sullivan.

Bone broth is a centuries old staple, commonly known as grandma’s chicken soup among American families. In East Asia, broths pervade cuisine from breakfast to dinner, especially in Japan. In New York City, bone broth is being rebranded as a quick nutritional drink for those willing to believe in it’s full body health benefits.

Avid consumers are driven to spread word about the gelatinous-filled drink they’ve described as an elixir of sorts. Authors Sally Fallon Morell and Kaayla T. Daniel explain in their book, Nourishing Broth: An Old-Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World, the differences between powdered broth and “real” broth made from real bones, arguing that the latter can “heal Osteoarthritis, Osteoporosis, Psoriasis, Infectious Disease, digestive disorders, and even Cancer.”

Paleo dieters swear by it and entrepreneurs have latched on to the wave of consumers likely to buy bone broth delivery subscriptions, bone-broth k-cups and meat-popsicles. Like Soylent, the futuristic one-drink meal, bone broth takeout is an experiment for sure, but in all its absurdity, serving it in a cup from a window has brought promising business to O’Sullivan, especially in cold months, when health conscious folks are less likely to buy chilled beverages like smoothies or pressed juices, he says. On average 100 customers per day spend $10 on a 16oz serving at his window.

“I have a co-worker that always has bone broth and she’s really health conscious and I have a really bad cold right now,” says Lindsay Crittenden who works near Brodo. “It tastes so good, but I still need to read up on the factual benefits.”

As the cold season sets in, lines are frequently out the door at Brodo’s newest soup shop – an expanded version of its original window – founded by Marco Canora. Frequently mistaken for a café, Brodo’s shop encourages customers to linger, furnished with a stack of broth cookbooks, some written by Canora himself, and a quaint bench placed just outside for customers waiting on line.

“We get a lot of acupuncturists and reiki masters – they’re like masseuses for your energy. We also get a lot of expecting mothers because they are recommended bone broth for their baby’s health and reconstructing their own body,” says Joel Jorge from Queens, who works behind the counter.

People can even order for pickup through Brodo’s new iPhone app. Those curious to try something new will take their time sampling different flavors, like “Oishi Oishi,” distinct for infused shiitake mushroom or their most popular, “Sipping Beauty,” made from chicken, turkey and beef with lemon and parsley.

Promoted for its miraculous qualities, bone broth has also managed to spill into the lives of the unlikeliest folks, causing them in some cases to compromise their own values and tastes.

“I was a vegetarian for 20 years before I started drinking bone broth,” says Stephanie, an active member in the animal rights community who did not want her last name used. “My naturopath recommended that I do it because so many years of vegetarianism has negative reproductive effects. My energy is healthier and my cycles are so much better, but it took me a long time to come around to it,” she admits.

Geoff Vuleta, a businessman in the nutrition sector, also has a complicated relationship with bone broth. “I hate it!” he yelps. “But I drink it every day because it’s extraordinarily good for you. I wait till it’s freezing cold and then drink it while holding my nose.”

Despite the hype of what’s been called bone broth, bone water, soup, stock, or bouillon (It’s all the same thing according to James Beard) there’s a lot of incredulity around its advertised health benefits by those who likely know better than most consumers.

“When people are recovering from surgery, bone broth is the easiest thing in the world for somebody to eat, but does it have medicinal qualities? No. It has very minor nutrient qualities – fluid and electrolytes, not much else,” says Charles Mueller, Associate Professor at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health.

“Bone broth is the base for soup,” he adds. It’s just been picked up as a fad food product to develop a fast food that appears healthy. A little salt, a little water, a few electrolytes and 20-50 calories. Why not have a cup of tea?” he asks.  

Meuller believes that good marketing can get people to do just about anything and it’s getting people to sip bone broth, in extreme cases, on a daily base and at a costly price. In 1884, Maggi first succeeded in selling powdered soup, creating a market for bullion concentrates hawked as healthy but faster alternatives to slow cooked meals.

Similar to how Starbucks revolutionized the act of drinking coffee in the US – launching hipster cafe-culture into mainstream diet habits – shops specializing in bone-broth are mostly as successful as their advertising schemes. The bone broth frenzy is resultingly “ludicrous and amusing,” says Mueller.

Although Barney’s and Brodo craft their delicious broths with quality ingredients and a 20-hour simmering process, bone broth is, to one’s chagrin, quite simple.

“It’s no superfood,” says Mueller. “It is soup-lite. It’s like drinking diluted orange juice. If you really wanted to be the healthiest, you’d eat the soup, not just the base.”

About Rebecca Blandon

Rebecca Blandón is a native New Yorker driven by curiosity and compassion in her reporting. She has an affinity for stories on music, food studies, visual art, human rights, urban life, pop science, and identity politics.