The tails used to be easier to find, cheaper to buy, and cut in half with an electric bandsaw by the butcher to expose the marrow to the stew. Or so my Aunt Bev tells me, claiming this type of cut made the marrow of the tail very juicy and easy to suck on. She scrunches up her fingers and puts them to her mouth, like she is holding a nice long bone in her hand. “Delicious,” she says.
Aunt Bev is one of five sisters on my mother’s side, and though my mother is usually the one who makes this dish for us, my aunt has fulfilled the role of family record keeper for a long time and seems to have access to details about their childhood in Kingston, Jamaica that my mother has either forgotten or wasn’t there for. Growing up, I had an idea of where our oxtail stew originated, but my sentimental image of a traditional pot prepared and perfected by my mother’s mother and her mother’s mother for centuries, with a recipe that was never written down or given to anyone outside of the family, proved to be false.
“The maids,” my aunt tells me, “They must have taught my mother how to make it.”
“The maids?” I ask her, as if to clarify what should have been obvious to me.
Of course, laborers from China like my grandparents would migrate to Jamaica with their traditional Chinese dishes and then adopt Jamaican cuisine as they tried to assimilate into their new lives. From what my aunt tells me, it was common in 1950s Kingston to hire maids to cook and clean a large home like theirs, local women who knew how to handle saltfish, ackee, okra, and the more undesirable parts of the cow. The maids would throw basic ingredients together with the meat in one pot for prolonged periods of time, much like their ancestors on the plantations, turning the unwanted animal parts into tender, rich dishes of marrow, beans, and meat.
Today, the tails are considered expensive cuts, going for 8.99/lb at a butcher in Chinatown and often selling out. My mother will buy a kilo for 60 dollars to feed five of us, with enough for leftovers that we will work our way through and savor because we know the stew will taste even better a few days later, a kind of stewing of the stew.
One facet of my sentimental image of the dish remains: the recipe has not and will likely never be written down, at least not by the Lyn sisters. Aunt Bev has her version, which she showed my mother—and then my mother has her own way of doing things. Like most Jamaican dishes, the hardest part is the preparation—in this case the tail—which has been chopped up to one-to-two inch pieces of meat by the butcher, like smaller tails of the whole, covered in a thin white layer of fat. Because there are no written instructions to follow, I film my mother as she explains how to clean the tails by taking a sharp knife and running it underneath the fat until the entire layer comes off in one long strip.
“Never leave the fat on,” my mother, clad in her plastic apron, tells the camera, “It’s unhealthy and will create an oily dish with no flavor. And don’t cut off any of the meat, it’s too expensive to cut off.”
A kilo of tails takes her about an hour to clean. Then, she seasons the cleaned tails by rubbing them in a mix of chopped garlic, around two to three cloves, a few turns of black pepper, and just a touch of soy sauce.
“How much soy sauce, exactly?” I ask, and she holds up several fingers to illustrate an indeterminate amount.
“It just gives them a little color,” she says, holding a seasoned tail to show how the black of the soy sauce makes the meat appear a little darker, and a bit closer to how it will look once it has stewed for a few hours. I doubt the slaves of West Africa had access to bottles of soy sauce, so I can only guess this addition comes from my family’s mash up of Jamaican and Chinese, where salt is substituted with the sodium-rich, almost bitter taste of fermented soybeans.
“The recipe has not and will likely never be written down, at least not by the Lyn sisters.”
As my mother stirs the pot she talks about a house that just went on the market down the street and her latest yoga class. The tails start sizzling to a nice brown sear.
“You know, some people just can’t tell their left foot from their right,” she says as she pours enough water into the pot to fill it halfway, and then sets the stove to medium. The tails will cook down for two and a half hours, turning from dark pink flesh to deep brown chunks of meat that fall easily off the bone.
While the oxtail cooks, my dad prepares his station on the kitchen counter, throwing flour, water and salt together in a metal bowl and kneading it until it turns into a large ball that is neither too wet nor too dry. Wearing a golf hat and running shoes, my dad stands at the counter and rolls a small amount of dough between his palms, forming thin, round dumplings that are called spinners because of how you “spin” the flour between your palms when you make them.
“Are you filming this?” he asks, as I zoom in to catch his hands rubbing the dough, quickly creating a row of little flattened footballs.
“This is technique of the highest order,” he says, making my mother laugh and drop the spoon against the pot.
“Notice the texture,” he insists, holding a ball of dough between his palms, “Doesn’t stick, and rolls up nice.” My father is known in our house for this kind of showmanship, an ire approach even to a bowl of dough.
In the last half hour of cooking, my mother will add an onion, some tomatoes, half a pack of coconut cream, a can of lima beans, a few stalks of thyme and finally the tray of spinners to the pot. The stew will cook on low for 15 more minutes, before she tastes it and adds more salt, and then turns off the stove. By then, the house will be permeated by the rich, burly smell, and we will all gather at the long dining table, and start to pile our plates with white rice. One of my sisters will put small bowls out between each plate for the castaway bones, which we can’t feed to the dog anymore because she enjoyed one so much she almost swallowed it whole.
To explain the taste of oxtail stew would involve applying words to an experience to which I am not capable of doing justice. But once I was called on to defend the dish, in tenth grade, after everyone else had chosen pepperoni pizza or Taco Bell or rainbow pop tarts as their favorite food and I, wanting to be honest, had simply said “oxtail”.
“What is that?” the teacher said in disbelief, as if I had chosen the largest animal from the Chinese zodiac and made it into something you could eat. Oh but it’s real, I had wanted to explain to her, it’s a thing. I have held the tail in my hands.
Born in Calgary and raised in Miami, Steph Wong Ken is currently a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Portland State University.