The Bone Collector
There are so many great narratives spinning off the history of Stock Exchange Mindful Nourishment Co. in Waterloo, Ontario and its founder Jill Weaver, that it’s difficult to choose just one.
We could begin with how she left home at seventeen for Australia via British Columbia, returning to an accounting program and eventually finding her niche as an entrepreneur. Or how casual chatting about her homemade bone broths led to her “dealing” stock with parents in the schoolyard. Or even how, day after day, a lone 100-litre pot, tended by her stalwart chef and kitchen manager Sam Russo, produces all of the chicken and beef bone broths for the sixty-seven retail locations the company currently supplies under the brand name Stock Exchange Bone Broth.
The distilled version of Jill’s story, and the founding of the company she runs from her home and a small kitchen she shares with a local caterer, is pretty simple. As a young mother, she found herself struggling with a fussy baby plagued with ear infections and food reactions. To help her son, she set out on a journey of discovery about food. Like most busy parents Jill had been cooking what she knew – until she was faced with the challenge of managing the myriad sensitivities her son was experiencing.
“I took advantage of my maternity leave to learn all I could about food in general,” said Jill. She began reading Michael Pollan and Nina Planck, strapping her son into the car to buy food from local farms, and preparing everything from scratch. It was during this transition to more mindful eating that she fell in love with the primal appeal of cooking with bones.
“I never set out to be the bone-broth girl,” Jill related. “I started making stocks and it just evolved from there.” Before interviewing her for this story, I admit that I had my own preconceptions of a person who cooks bones for a living. The home in Uptown Waterloo she shares with her partner Joe and their three boys is sleek and modern, not at all the hippie farmstead I was expecting. Perhaps her family was a bit surprised, too, at her interest in bones. In the early days, Jill posted a photo on Instagram of a pot simmering on the stove, the feet of a chicken poking out the top. The image horrified her stepson to the point that he vowed never to eat whatever “witches’ brew” she was conjuring.
Happily, there’s no witchcraft at play. Using the whole animal, bones and all, is one of our most basic instincts and goes back as far as our days as hunter-gatherers, when taking down an animal was a huge deal and no part of the windfall was wasted.
Early bone broths would have included large joints of animals, stripped of their meat and placed in the stomach, which would then be filled with hot rocks. Water was added, in addition to whatever vegetables, roots, and tubers could be collected, providing a nutrient-filled meal for the community.
Many people making stock at home do so by simmering a picked-over chicken carcass and a few vegetables in water, but bone broth is a whole different, well, animal. Fewer bones are used in stock, which is typically cooked for several hours and is primarily a flavouring liquid. Bone broth uses a higher proportion of bones and cooks much, much longer – up to 24 hours for chicken and even longer for beef.
Jill first soaks her bones in an acid bath of either lemon or apple cider vinegar, along with filtered water. More filtered water, aromatic vegetables, turmeric, and herbs are then added and the slow simmering process begins. (No salt is added, which makes the broth totally suitable for reducing and making sauces with.) The resulting brew is an extraction of minerals, collagen, and gelatin which is then flash frozen and sold in 500mL containers in the freezer case.
“The bones will let you know when the broth is done,” said Jill. “When they crumble in your hands, the bones have given all they have to give” and the broth is ready.
Bone broth is definitely having its moment.
According to Jill, the opening of Brodo, a bone-broth bar in Manhattan’s East Village, really brought it to the mainstream. “When Brodo opened it changed everything. People were finding me and asking about bone broth. A few years ago, drinking broth was unheard of, but it makes perfect sense.” Further support has come through adopters of the Paleo diet and its low-tech avoidance of any food not in existence before the onset of agriculture. Bone broth is the perfect stand-in for coffee and tea, both no-nos for Paleos.
Jill prefers to see her Stock Exchange products as umami flavour elements for cooking. She prefers not to make any health or nutrition claims but states, in the most basic terms, that bone broth “seals and heals” – meaning the properties of extracted collagen and gelatin smooth the intestinal tract and are said to improve gut health. She emphasizes that bone broths are not a magic cure-all but, rather, a part of more mindful eating.
What can be claimed, without question, is the way a cup of hot broth makes us feel. Who doesn’t recall at least one instance when we felt a bit unwell and Mom hastily dissolved a bouillon cube in hot water for us to drink? And sipping on chicken soup, simmered from scratch using real bones, chicken, and vegetables, has always been associated with well-being and healing, even though the evidence was largely anecdotal until a few years ago.
Jill agrees. “When I drink it, I feel it feeding my body. All those dissolved minerals and collagen go right where they need to.” In the evenings, instead of hot chocolate or tea, her family will often wind down by sipping cups of steaming-hot bone broth, her formerly skeptical stepson included.
These days the interest in enjoying bone broth as a food has travelled well beyond the trendy restaurants of New York, and sipping stations are popping up here, too. As we sat in Smile Tiger Coffee Roasters, a cozy spot kitty-corner to the transit hub in Kitchener, our barista brought us a steaming cup of the evocatively named Sunday Dinner, one of Stock Exchange’s one-off sipping broths made from whole chicken and sage. We also stopped in at Vincenzo’s in Waterloo, where Jill’s collaboration with craft butcher Matt Kendrick of in-house The Bauer Butcher resulted in another sipping broth – Sunday Roast – poured out for patrons to enjoy as they read the paper at the coffee bar or browse the store for gourmet finds.
Collaboration has truly become a magical piece of the Stock Exchange story. Jill started out as a mother looking to source the best food possible for her family, and has now created a new market for what are essentially byproducts of small farms in the area.
“It’s a bit crazy, but one of my favourite things to do,” Jill enthused, “is to visit farmers and collect their bones. I’m so happy to see them and their smiling faces when I show up. They are always happy when I come for their bones.” All bones and chickens, which are kept whole, go through regular inspection channels before Jill takes them back to the kitchen to work her magic.
As we chatted, I helped Jill unload boxes containing a small portion of the 500 pounds of bones she uses in a week: marrow bones, beef knuckles, and a pan containing a whole rooster complete with head and feet. I’m reminded that food writing isn’t always pretty, but that’s the point. It may make you squeamish, but all those exposed bones are a reminder that these are the insides of animals, a fact we are shielded from when we purchase sterile packages of boneless, skinless, and processed meats. It’s empowering to know that using bones can return to us what processed foods have taken away: control over what we eat, and a deeper connection to our food. Jill also sources her vegetables locally, using not-so-pretty but perfectly delicious seconds from The Sustainable Market, a local web-based farmers’ market.
Chicken bones sourced from organic egg farms provide all the hens Jill needs for her chicken bone broth, and her favourite farmer punctuates his flocks with a rooster or two, whose presence has a calming effect on the hens. On large egg farms, spent layers generally wind up as commercial chicken soup or pet food, but it isn’t cost-effective for large companies to buy up smaller pastured flocks. Enter Jill and her need for whole birds, as well as the roosters for their bigger bones, and all of a sudden, there’s a market for what were viewed as waste products.
“One farmer I work with was getting 25 cents a head for his spent girls,” explained Jill. “I’m paying them much more. I’m getting the best-fed, best-cared-for chickens for my broths, and a partnership that benefits the farmer financially.” The same goes for beef bones, but they are harder to come by. Small producers of grass-fed beef tend to sell whole sides, complete with bones, so she is always looking to add more beef farms to her pick-up run. Tracking down beef bones is how she met up with Matt Kendrick of The Bauer Butcher.
“She kept coming in and asking for bones,” Matt recalled. “Eventually we started talking and she explained what she was doing.” Matt put the wheels in motion for the collaboration at Vincenzo’s, the gourmet food emporium that houses The Bauer Butcher’s meat counter. On a busy Saturday, beef shank, boar sausages, and Tamworth pork were flying out the door. Matt’s customer base, wildly appreciative of the butcher shop’s nose-to-tail philosophy, were the same people asking about bones to make their own bone broths at home. Connecting the dots, he approached Jill and now she’s making one-off batches using Matt’s grass-fed beef bones and served by the cup at Vincenzo’s. “We source as responsibly as we can and so does Jill,” Matt explained. “I saw this as a natural extension of what we [were] already doing.”
Not only are the broths healthful, he said, but he credits Jill’s intuition in knowing when the broths are just right, and for tapping into the way people are subconsciously drawn to steaming cups of broth “just like Mom’s.”
According to Jill, these partnerships are all about “celebrating the hell out of each other.” Both Jill and Matt see the opportunity for further one-offs using elk and bison, and both see the potential spin-off effect of being able to introduce customers to more on-the-fringe meats through broth tastings.
Stock Exchange bone broths are not cheap, but that’s also the point. A 500mL container retails for $14 or more, which puts some people off. Back home in Jill’s kitchen, she pulled out several containers of bone broth. Two are hers and the rest are competitors’ products which, according to Jill, really aren’t competition but are instead what she calls “market distractors.”
“It’s not the same product, not even close,” she exclaimed, peeling the lid off a cardboard container to reveal its contents, alongside a similar product in clear plastic. Both were a pale straw colour and quite thin. She then opened one of hers to compare side by side. It’s dark and gelatinous.
“This sits next to mine and sells for $9.00. People see “bone broth” on the label and assume it’s the same thing, and it’s not.” Stock Exchange broths, for one, are highly concentrated and Jill advises that they can be diluted before using, if desired: one-to-one with water for drinking and a maximum of one-to-three (one 500mL container of Stock Exchange broth mixed with up to 1.5L of water) for cooking.
She also elaborated on her small-batch, artisanal production methods and that, while so many products make the claim, Stock Exchange broths truly are. She pointed out the lot numbers on her containers and explained that she can trace each batch down to the farm and, in the case of beef, to the animal it came from. She said she could reduce her price if she paid the farmers less, but she made it very clear: there is no room for compromise there.
“It’s very important to communicate the farmer piece in all of this, my appreciation and gratitude for what they do. I’m touched by my relationship with the farmers, and making this product allows me to share that connection with our consumers.”
Stock Exchange Mindful Nourishment Co.