Oxtail stew, and the price of popularity.
Adapted from: Golden Krust's version of the classic Jamaican comfort food.
Vegetarians, I apologize in advance. This week, we’re talking offal.
Some of my fondest food memories growing up involve eating parts of the animal—pig intestines, chicken feet, beef tripe—that I now know to be controversial among certain audiences. At Chinese restaurants, I’d experience the distinct cognitive dissonance of watching friends balk and gag at the very things that once made my parents’ eyes light up, and feel the hot urge to neutralize my desire in the face of their disgust. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, the saying goes, but I never knew just how literal it could be.
Later, I’d learn that these cuts had a name, a categorization, an inherent hierarchy. Merriam-Webster defines offal as “the waste or by-product of a process,” synonymous with “rubbish.” We’re not supposed to want them, these throwaway scraps, with their worth and value written right into their name. And yet, so many of us never had the choice.
I’d always thought of oxtail as a treat, a luxury. The dishes that feature oxtail are so rich, so comforting, and I’ve loved gnawing on collagen and sinew since I could chew. When I learned that it was historically one of the throwaway cuts given to the enslaved working on Caribbean plantations, I started seeing things differently. My brain was slowly acclimating to the discomfort of zooming out, of seeing an ingredient not just for what it is, but for its position in the hierarchies and power dynamics that govern our foodways—the whole systemic picture.
I’ve never purchased oxtail before this week, but I know that the prices aren’t what they used to be. When Instagrammable Italian restaurants are serving oxtail ragu as a main, you know it’s over for the rest of us. “It has become very expensive, almost unaffordable,” says Chef D., the executive chef of Island Spice Grill, a beloved Caribbean food truck in New York. WHY ARE OXTAILS SO EXPENSIVE, asks one Redditor, and many others online echo his frustration. It’s an issue that has even spawned mock-MAGA merch:
That a specific ingredient is embraced by mainstream food culture isn’t the problem. The problem is when food undergoes gentrification, and ingredients become inaccessible and unaffordable to the very cultures that hold them dear. Like how the crop prices of quinoa tripled within a decade, due to a boom in the grain’s popularity and consumption, and it is now unaffordable to the people that farm it. Food writer Alicia Kennedy wrote about it as part of a piece on the globalized food system:
“When affluent consumers in Europe and the United States suddenly discovered quinoa, they were willing to pay high prices for the relatively limited supply of this ancient Andean staple,” writes Holt-Giménez in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. “The ‘poor people’s food’ quickly became too expensive for the poor, forcing them to look to cheap imported bread and pastas for nourishment.” This also changed the region’s traditional farming methods: quinoa production once relied on “a complex cropping and animal husbandry rotation system” but now uses mechanized monocrop cultivation, which has destroyed grazing areas for llamas, created erosion and dust storms, and generally undermined a sustainable way of life.
This leaves immigrant restaurants in a precarious position, where they can barely afford to serve the very dishes that they are known for. But restaurants like Island Spice Grill can’t just hike up their prices based on escalating ingredient costs, because people simply won’t want to pay for it.
Chef Diep Tran spoke out about this a few years ago. “Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap,” she writes. Even though I know better, I have found myself aghast at the price of dinner at an upscale fusion Chinese restaurant, mentally doing the math against the mom and pop Chinese takeout I’m used to.
To expect immigrant restaurants to remain “cheap” while their ingredients double in price is to perpetuate the gaps of inequality within our societies. “We need to rethink the very idea behind cheap eats lists,” argues Tran. “We need to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about immigrant resourcefulness and tenacity also makes us willfully blind to the human cost that makes the $3 banh mi possible.”
The oxtail I used for this recipe, for the record, cost $33. Granted, it was from a local meat producer, but it was still the price of two handsome steaks. My parents can never know about this.
Jamaican Oxtail Stew — Sam Sifton for the New York Times — adapted from Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill
A few notes on this one:
• The use of “blackened sugar” in the recipe notes might suggest that you should actually blacken the sugar—don’t. I did, and although it does give great flavour to the stew, it also gives it a bitterness that is hard to get rid of. What you want is to brown the sugar to give the meat a caramelized flavour, and take it to—per a Reddit thread—“the colour of an old penny.”
• The oxtail will almost certainly take longer than 2 hours to tenderize. Mine took just over 3 hours on low.
• You’re supposed to remove the scotch bonnet whole at the end, but if you cook your recipe for 3 hours (like I did) your scotch bonnet might dissolve into the stew without warning (like mine did). If this frightens your spice tolerance, take it out after a couple of hours.
Other takes on oxtail stew:
• A pressure cooker version from My Forking Life, in which the oxtail is marinated in advance, and carrots join the party.
• From Roxy Chow Down, a version that leverages a wider gamut of spices and a long marinate time, for gnaw-on-the-bone flavour: “Even though eating oxtail can get messy, sucking on the bones is how to truly enjoy it. And every oxtail-lover knows that’s the best part!”
• From Jessica B. Harris via Saveur, a version that features tomato paste, celery and carrot—a sofrito base that seems to be a nod to the Spanish occupation of Jamaica.
If this made you hungry but it all sounds too complicated, great! A perfect occasion to support your favourite Caribbean restaurants and tip them generously.
Until next time,