I’ve always been proud to be Jamaican. To my parents’ credit, they made sure I understood and appreciated where my family came from. They regularly cooked us Jamaican food at home, played old school reggae songs on repeat, and took us to Jamaica every summer to spend time with our family in Kingston. I was living and growing up in the United States, but my parents raised me in a Jamaican household.
There was nothing about Jamaican culture I was ashamed of, and luckily for me, it was not on the list of cultures that children typically got bullied for growing up. Jamaica was cool: it produced Bob Marley, was home to the world’s fastest runners, and if you ask any American, all the people do is smoke weed. During the third grade, my teacher decided to host an "Around the World” celebration for our class where we each brought in a dish representative of our culture. Third graders tend to be picky, so my mom and I decided that my classmates would best handle fried plantains. I was so excited to expose my classmates to good food that my gap-tooth smile stretched across the entire width of my face as I passed out plantains alongside my mom. We were the only Black people in that room, just two Jamaican girls in Upstate New York, and it was one of the few times I felt fully content in my skin during school hours.
But, had I known then as an 8-year-old what I know now as a 25-year-old, I wouldn’t have brought those kids plantain. I wouldn’t have put so much stock into what I thought they could handle and instead, given them what I believed most represented my culture: oxtail.
Oxtail is exactly what it sounds like: the tail of a cow. Back in the day, it came exclusively from the tail of an ox, but now it comes from the tail of both sexes. The tail is skinned and cut into sections, each with marrow at its center. Oxtail is known to be fatty, but that, along with the bone, is what provides it with such flavor. They’re the best part.
There was once a time when oxtail was considered pauper food because it was so fatty and took
a long time to cook (usually about an hour), but the price of oxtail has skyrocketed over the years. That’s why we only ate it on special occasions in my family. For every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, if we were lucky, there was oxtail. For a long time, my mom’s oxtail was the only oxtail I had ever eaten. I had convinced myself that no one’s oxtail could be as flavorful or as juicy or provide as much happiness as my mom’s. That was until I tasted my sister’s.
Bri was never known for helping much in the kitchen growing up. She was always the one who came in last minute after waking up from a nap to add the finishing touches to dinner with a salad or some rice — the dishes that required the least amount of effort. However, in recent years, we’ve sort of switched places. I am now the one who sleeps through most of Thanksgiving preparation while she assists my mom in the kitchen. In switching positions, I have come to realize she’s a much more talented cook than I would have ever expected and that her oxtail may be on par with our mom’s.
While staying with her in Florida over my COVID-19 extended spring break, we made two batches of oxtail: her recipe and Jamaican Cookery’s recipe. We wanted to compare the two to see which one tasted the best, because the ingredients listed in the Jamaican Cookery recipe didn’t seem like it would yield very flavorful oxtail. I had always known oxtail to be more involved, spice wise. The recipe only called for allspice, browning, and salt. Meanwhile, my sister’s recipe included allspice, Worcestershire sauce, browning, garlic powder, salt, pepper, thyme, and ketchup (yes, ketchup).
After following the cookbook’s instructions and waiting the allotted 60 minutes for the oxtail to cook in the slow cooker, my suspicions were confirmed. The oxtail was bland. So, the only logical move was to dump my batch of oxtail into my sister’s before she finished broiling it in the oven. As we waited for it to finish up, we set the dining table, poured ourselves two glasses of wine, and prepared some rice and peas to give the oxtail a comfortable bed to rest on. Ever since the COVID-19 situation became extremely serious, I had been craving some semblance of home, and it that moment, I found it in a batch of oxtail, and in my sister.