Cooking Oxtail in Iowa City, or a Recipe for Home
:: by A. Naomi Jackson ::
On a recent cold February day, I found myself jamming to Burning Flames “Workie” while a pot of oxtail cooked down on the stove. This would not under any other circumstances be an event of any note except for a few key facts.
I live in Iowa City where I am in my last semester of a two-year bid at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I moved here from the West Indian section of Brooklyn, Flatbush. To say that moving to Iowa has been a process of cultural disorientation would be an understatement.
For nine years before I moved here, I was a vegetarian. My descent into meat eating began on a trip to Chicago when I was offered a plate of fried whiting and white rice I couldn’t refuse. And despite my best efforts to regain my meatless status, backsliding has had me eating bacon and all other manner of meats ever since.
Third, before Iowa, I never cooked. My mom will proudly tell anyone that I make a mean curry goat. But this statement is both overly generous and possibly false. She taught me how to brown, pepper and cook curry goat when I was twelve. I haven’t made it again since that home-economics induced cooking fervor during the spring of seventh grade, which she still looks back fondly upon.
So, all that is to say that a serious case of nostalgia and transformed life circumstances led me to the Saturday afternoon when I was singing Burning Flames’ hits from my summer trips home to Antigua for carnival and cooking oxtail stew. As I browned the meat, chopped the vegetables, and then poured red wine and beef broth into the pot before I set it to simmer, I was making Saturday lunch. But more importantly, I was conjuring home, specifically the Brooklyn kitchen where my Antiguan father and Jamaican stepmother regularly make the best souse, macaroni and cheese pie, homemade bread, and black cake this side of the Atlantic, according to this decidedly biased observer.
Going home is another three months away for me. But after conferring with a couple writer friends, West Indians similarly marooned in this Midwest outpost, about the best places to buy oxtail and plantains, lamenting the fact that I’ve yet to find the Bajan veg staple, okra, I felt less alone knowing that just a few blocks away, other children of the same sea were, each in their own way, summoning home into their kitchens and onto the page.
Ahhh, so you want to know how this thing tasted? Well, it didn’t turn out as planned. I’m hardheaded and so I didn’t cook down the stew for the three hours the Internet recipe suggested or the five-six hours my mom recommended. But I ate it. More importantly, when I came home that night, my house smelled like my parents’ house in Brooklyn. And that scent alone was worth the effort.
A. Naomi Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on her first novel, Star Side of Bird Hill.