Devote a Day to Simmering This Tender Oxtail Stew
The magic of oxtail deserves to be passed from one generation to the next.
The first bite of oxtail is a gift: The tug of meat from its bone is swift and gentle, hardly requiring much effort at all. Depending on whose hands have seasoned the meal, you might experience a burst of heat immediately afterward. Or maybe, if you're lucky, a hint of sweetness, released from the gravy, by way of the onion and sugar, before the marinade's minced peppers—sprinkled from one end of your bowl to the other—fold themselves into the equation. Eventually, every component of the oxtail brings itself to the forefront of your consciousness, definitively upending the dish's flavor profile, defining the meal as both a challenge and a delicacy. Oxtail is just as much of an investment as it is delicious.
I grew up with oxtail in Houston, ate it across paper plates from biological Jamaican uncles and not-quite-biological Jamaican aunties. In the city's numbing humidity, on the lawns of churches and the porches of backyards, the oxtail's spice felt like a cosmic joke—yet another assault on the senses. And then, on occasional trips to Florida, family I hadn't seen in ages cracked bottles of Red Stripe over piles of dominoes, taking care not to disrupt bowls of steaming rice resting underneath a layer of gently simmered meat. Someone was always laughing too loudly or yelling for someone else, and this dish embodied the vibrancy of those gatherings: It tasted explosive, but methodical. Predictable, even. Oxtail never felt like it would—or could—let you down.
That's a lot to ask of any dish. Oxtail became so familiar to me as a totem of comfort that, for the longest while, the labor implicit in its preparation never really registered in its totality. I knew that it took entirely too long to make. I saw the hands that went into grinding and chopping for the marinade. I knew about the requisite waiting. But I also knew that it was a dish that made me feel comfortable, and it made the world around me a little bit better, regardless of where I was at the time. The meat's heat was a full-body experience. Its glossy texture acknowledged a full day's work. Home was wherever I could find oxtail, and oxtail, simmered lightly for hours on end, felt like home.
But it was exactly this component of the meal—the work of it—that so shocked me when it came time to cook the thing on my own. It shouldn't have been so surprising, but there you had it. After telling my boyfriend about so many evenings fantasizing over oxtail's allure—alongside platters of peas and fried plantain and escovitch fish, sitting alongside sliced avocados and shrimp broiled under callaloo—he finally asked why I didn't just make it myself. I didn't have a good reason. The whole process would take too long. I'd never land the texture. My mother wouldn't tell me the recipe. Or, even worse, she'd tell me, and then I'd screw it up. I also didn't have the stew's most precious ingredient: time. Making oxtail would always remain a pipe dream, and I certainly didn't have spare days to chase that particular dragon. So I told my guy as much, and he left it alone. We'd subsist solely on stories surrounding the dish for the time being.
But of course we can't simply let the promise of deliciousness dissolve into memory. Because that's another thing about oxtail: Its allure is so pervasive that you can hardly kick the craving before it rears itself up again. Oxtail is a dish that merits a very long day: You either have the time to make it well, or you don't have the time to make it at all. One morning, a sudden and deep urge to recreate my memories overcame me. So I chose to meander through my local H Mart, scouring sealed packs of meat, before bringing them home to marinate overnight. I wasn't exactly expecting a cakewalk, but I was entirely too anxious about what I wasn't doing. What I found, however, as the oxtail's aroma began to fill the room, was that the time passed either way. It was simply no longer an issue. There's never enough time for the things that we love in this life. We make it, or we don't. We do the best with what we can.
Eventually, the afternoon passed. Steaming from its pot that evening, a spoonful of the oxtail nearly knocked me off my feet. The meat's texture was as gentle as silken tofu. It was a little like I'd remembered, but very obviously different—my ingredients were the same, and my prep was close enough, but the hands bringing it all together were different, were mine. I sent a photo to my mom. Told my boyfriend to expect a full meal. And then I ravenously, cravenly, snuck a few more bites for myself. The magic of oxtail is that it lends itself well to tricks and alterations, passed down from one pair of hands to the next. Those changes—your changes—budge the flavor profile just slightly, until what you're left with, if you're lucky, is a dish that's very much your own.
But, really, it’s for the folks at the table beside you: friends and lovers and friends turned lovers turned family. You take one bite and then the next. Reach for another scoop. Anticipate the payoff. And then, all of a sudden, you’re home.