How to Boil a Skull

Don’t I wish I had a video from that day in mom’s kitchen!


How to Boil a Skull

It was a Saturday morning in my mom’s immaculate kitchen, so the hardwood floors positively shined, having been waxed only the afternoon before.  The polished copper and stainless pots and pans hung in ranks from wrought iron hooks embedded in the ceiling.  An elegant, eggshell porcelain vase of just-cut flowers from her cottage garden decorated the granite counter on the island.  It all looked nice, but I had work to do and since mom was upstairs folding Dad’s underwear, or something equally mundane, she wasn’t available to offer protest.

You might inquire, “What could a boy do that a mother would protest?”  Lots, actually.  In this instance I was trying to improve upon my award-winning skull collection.  Only the year before, my collection of Native American Skulls had taken Best of Show (Junior Division) at the Lancaster County Optimist Hobby Show, yet my gathering of denuded heads was pale in comparison with the brilliant skull collection of the gent who snagged the Senior Division Best of Show award.  The two of us must have really upset the stamp and coin collectors that year!  I still have the silver trophy bowl, though it is tarnished.  I never caught meticulous mother’s fever for polishing the un-used dishes.

GW Blog Best Show Skulls

This collection, despite my title for it, did not have within it even a single skull from a Native American in the contemporary sense: Indians, revised.   I wisely focused my decapitative efforts entirely on wildlife.  I had the skulls of several beavers, a bobcat, a white tail buck, a mooseling*, a coyote, an opossum, a racoon, a weasel, turtles, doves, and many more.  I could identify the mastoid process, the parietal and sphenoid bones, the maxilla and the mandible.  Each skull had been scrupulously cleansed of flesh, picked free of brains, washed, bleached, rinsed, dried, polished with a soft cloth, then inked, neatly as I could muster, with black India to log it into my collection.

{Goat Note:  *Mooseling.  I love capturing the inconsequential, yet interesting, events as they slide by us – or we by them.  In listing some of my skulls, I wrote “a baby moose” and immediately realized that “mooseling” is a much better single word for the pair, “baby moose,” even if it only saves a single space and no characters.  “Omit Needless Words!” shouts the wrinkled grammarian Strunk and White, his latter day apologist.  Though I often don’t omit needless words, this seemed a good place to follow Strunkian dictates, so I coined the word mooseling for my purposes, borrowing from feathered, flippered, and finned babes bearing diminutive -lings: goslings, froglings, and fingerling graylings.  Perfect coinage, I thought.  Having been caught out before in these circumstances, I took a moment to look up mooseling and I was both saddened and pleased, in equal measures, to learn mooseling was a rare, but historic word.  No neologism for me.  But, in fact, something curious and better: mooseling is a perfect anagram of neologism.  Almost too good to be true!  Like God smiling, and speaking with deified, if mortal, charm – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – to the first mom, “Madam, I’m Adam.”   Even I can live with that unexpected reversal.  If you enjoy bending your mind around anagrams, try out a perfect anagram generator, here.  If only mooseling and neologism were also semordnilaps.}

Let’s head back to inking skulls, here’s an example: Beaver #8.

GW Blog Beaver N8 Ink

My handwriting was bad then, and it’s worse now.  Griffonage.  Lucky you, I’m typing.

Even my otherwise observant mom seemed to have missed the connection between her incessant, obsessive, cooking and cleaning and my own thorough attention to the Native American Skulls.  The difference was that I preferred to labor over a carcass, in whole or in part, cooking and cleaning it to be rid of the soft tissue and preserve the hard, then discarding the used pot into her stainless deep sink, whilst when she labored over a carcass, she fed us the soft tissue and discarded the bones before polishing her pot.  Had we ever teamed up, it could have been quite a spectacle.  Imagine the articulated skeleton of a wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, festooned with fresh-cut chrysanthemums and gracing the Thanksgiving Day dinner table as the centerpiece while relatives passed around the bird, the mashed potatoes, and the oyster stuffing!  Instead, we worked at odds, never realizing how much we shared in common.

In any event, I had recently acquired the skull of a white tail doe which had been stripped of its skin by an old taxidermist acquaintance, but was otherwise fully intact.  It looked like a 3D illustration out of some artistic Grizzly Adams’s, as yet unpublished, Graybeard’s Anatomy – Vertebrates of the Wildlands edition, showing all the doe’s musculature, the teeth, the nose, the tongue, and the bulging eyes.  Look closely – these were plump eyes, not those desiccated by the freezer, and they appeared excessively protuberant since their full curvature wasn’t partially masked by skin.  This fleshy skull with its popping eyes I stuck, nose-up, into a medium-sized stock pot.

For those of you who’ve never boiled skulls before, I should explain a few things.  First, boiling is a fine way to quickly loosen clingy meat and tendons from bones that you’re trying to clean, plus it softens the brains, making them easier to pick out through the base of the skull, that hole of holies, the foramen magnum.  That’s the spot where Leonardo da Vinci would pith a frog to immobilize it instantly.  Second, boiling a skull complete with all the accoutrements necessary to life, sans skin, is flat out stinky.  The first point makes skull boiling all but a necessity for the juvenile skull collector who lacks a museum-quality maggot box.  The second point means that my resourceful Dad’s technique of modulating the scent of boiling skulls is also necessary to maintain a semblance of peace in a household wherein only some family members appreciate the need to boil skulls.

And this stench-be-gone technique, you discreetly inquire?  Lean in, I’ll share.  When boiling skulls, you must add all manner of vegetables to the water so that the mass smells more like a delectable stew than a humid August morgue on Monday morning after a Friday-night power failure.  Reeking is right out.

So this is precisely what I did.  I sliced and diced like I was a late-night TV Ginsu infomercialist.  I cut carrots, celery, potatoes, red and yellow onions, garlic, peppers of all sorts and shades, plus the odd eggplant, maybe two – whatever Mom had in the fridge and wasn’t using at that instant.  All these veggies, prepared with a panache my Sur-le-Tab mother would have appreciated, while admittedly wasted for consumption on our table, though not Dad’s table, provided an immense value in terms of fragrance.  I tucked the vegetable cubes, quarters, and slices all around the doe skull in the medium-sized stock pot, then filled the pot near to brimming with water.  Before lighting the gas stove, I carefully set a lid down.  The lid would have seated well, except that on one side it settled onto the rubbery, black nose of the doe, which protruded from the pot by about an inch, giving vent to the aromatic steam.

When I left the house, BB-gun in hand, to go bird-skull hunting in the nearby fields, the kitchen looked like Julia Child was mid-way into preparing some gastronomical delight.  Countertops were strewn with little shreds of yellow, red, and green vegetables.  Cutting boards and knives were dirty.  The sink was piled with carrot peelings.  I’d even gotten out mother’s spice jars to add pinches of Rosemary, Thyme, and Oregano to the pot, and each jar sat, lidless, on the granite.  Had I looked over my shoulder in parting, I might have noticed that the full boil in the mid-sized stock pot on “HI” was already causing water to splash out of the overburdened stock pot, turning the blue gas flame to hellish shades of red and orange.

Because I tended not to clean, I was unaware that even had I loaded the dirties into the dishwasher, that machine would have lazed, and glugged, and refused to work.  It had broken the night before, as will any over-used kitchen appliance.  Mom had riffled through her index card file of important phone numbers, made a prompt call, and had the plumber lined up for a Saturday morning visit.  He arrived just as I retreated from the kitchen, tool tote in his hand, brimming with monkey wrenches, Teflon tape, solder, and such.  My mother came down the steps from her bedroom, breaking the rhythm of her laundry folding for only an instant to allow the plumber entry, before retreating to her room upstairs.  The plumber knew our house well and led himself past the professionally decorated foyer, through the well appointed living room, and into the chef’s kitchen.  He bent to his work on the dishwasher, opposite the galleyway from the cooktop island.  He fixed the dishwasher, cleaned up his tools and his workspace (my mother had trained him well), then turned to leave.  At this moment he nosed out the stew, which was at the peak of perfection, at least from the standpoint of scent. He had lifted the lid to peer into the medium-sized stock pot bubbling upon the stove.

Mom, meanwhile, had finished folding Dad’s underwear and, having descended the steps, was just rounding her way into the kitchen when she spied the spying plumber and, upon his face, the look of sudden of horror.  Whatever he saw overwhelmed him with disgust or fear, for he dropped the lid, clang-a-lang, back onto the pot, then turned and fled the kitchen.  Tools in hand, he brushed past my startled mother in the living room without so much as a by-your-leave, cleared the foyer in a bound, and left the front door jarred as he darted for his truck.

Mother was aghast herself, for she saw the mess I’d made of her kitchen.  After a helpless glance in the direction the plumber had fled, she turned back to her abysmal kitchen and snuck up on the stove.  With hands atremble, she lifted the clanged-down lid on the mid-sized stock pot which had put the burly plumber to flight, risked a glimpse of what lurked within, then slumped to the floor, shaking and overcome with frustration.

Dad emerged from the undergloom of his basement office and saw mom crying on the floor. He called to me as I stepped back into the house, air-rifle in hand.  After first picking a few nibbling bits of meat from the doe’s skull, he, chewing away, attended to mother.  I propped my Daisy in a corner and tiptoed over her to attend to the sloughing skull.  To my surprise, for I hadn’t been outside too terribly long, the boiling water had steamed off down from the brim of the pot to the very level of the doe’s eye sockets.  Her large, moist eyes, stirred up by the vigorous churn of the boiling water, had come loose from their sockets and, still attached to the peeling skull by uncurling optic nerves, danced a funky jig on the surface of the frothing water.  No wonder the plumber had fled; it must have seemed to him that my Presbyterian mother was a witch with plans for preparing a meal in Hell that night.

Looking back, I understand, but at the time I wondered why my mother twitched out, when she should simply have added more water to the pot.  She had no regard for my scientific endeavors.  Suffice to say, after that one little incident, Dad procured an outdoor skull-boiling apparatus for my use; it consisted of a propane burner and a thirty-five gallon steel drum with sides tall enough to shroud even an anteater’s prodigious snout.

The End.

GW Blog Beaver Skull N8

gw blog beaver skull - crop

GW Blog Beaver Teeth


Here’s some et cetera notes tangentially related to this page.

1. The title, How to Boil a Skull is directly attributable to M.F.K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf.  If you haven’t met Fisher, start with her translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste – her translator’s notes are nearly as much fun as Brillat-Savarin’s writing.  Related, somehow: my father-in-law calls any mash-up of leftovers, stirred together in one pot and served up as a lumpy gravy of questionable origin, more questionable taste, and unquestioned value, Cranby Wolf.  Nothing goes to waste because at week’s end, the family ate everything, together at once.  Cranby Wolf.  For years I’ve wondered if this was some term passed down from his parents, who would have been the generation which suffered war privations and, perhaps, would have read How to Cook a Wolf when it was first published.   Wolf, I know.  Sometimes a creature, Canis lupus, sometimes a (hu)man, Mr. or Mrs. Wolf, sometimes both if you run across a Protean shape-shifter, a Dune Wolf, or the local, Amish, variant, the Kornwolf.  Cranby, I don’t know.  So I looked it up and I can find no Cranby except a man, and in one case an unfortunate man, “the accused….did ‘slit the nose of said Cranby.'”  And that quote was lifted from Susie Tucker’s Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-century Vocabulary and Usage.  Kornwolves, by the by, have plagued eastern Pennsylvania for centuries, but were not popularized until Tristan Egolf wrote his novel, Kornwolf, a summoning which apparently drove the author to madness and self-slaughter.

2.  While working on How to Boil a Skull, I came across a literary reference to dissecting pithed frogs.  From John Gardner’s Vlemk, The Box-Painter (p. 92): …he’d given her no more thought than the biologist gives to the frog he is cutting to pieces, still alive.  That was art.

Vlemk isn’t Gardner’s best work, but it’s worth reading.  Not all craftsmen are drunken skunkards, though Gardner otherwise does a fair job of addressing the challenges of craftsmanship, muses, and patrons.


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