One of my family’s stories from “the old days” surrounds a great, great uncle who, along with being the town’s long-serving postmaster, had also operated the village store. Known for his generosity and big heart, he cared deeply about the welfare of citizens suffering through the depths of the Great Depression, and kept a list of those he knew were struggling to feed their children. Before closing his shop on Saturday nights, he would have my Dad back his Model T up to the rear door, where there would be several boxes filled with soup bones and vegetables – the makings of the kind of hearty soups he believed would help the most. My older brothers were instructed to leave those boxes on the porches of the intended recipients after dark, and to depart quickly after ringing the door bell to insure that the gifts would remain anonymous.
Since Uncle Reuben lived with us, we too knew the marvel’s which simmered on our family’s own stove on a regular basis, with marrow-filled beef bones and a marriage of seasonal vegetables among the celestial ingredients. Especially high on my personal list of soup-pot magic was the incomparable richness of my mother’s Oxtail soup with its glistening layer of mouth-watering goodness riding on the bubbling surface.
While nearly every ethnic group lays claim to some variation of this classic soup or stew dish, it has played a special role in England’s long kitchen traditions. In my cherished facsimile copy of Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery” - our country’s very first cookbook – the author tells us how to make a “Foot Pie” using scalded “neets feet”, an old-world term for beef (or Ox) tails, one of the most flavorful parts of the bovine species. Since female animals were valued for their milk, a surplus of male critters – the Ox – most often found a pathway to the butcher’s block.
Nowadays, ox tails have become something of a “gourmet” item in our markets, and they not only command a higher price, but can be hard to find. For two diners, I like to buy at least one-and-a-half pounds of pre-cut ox tails, from which I trim as much fat as I can with a sharp boning knife. To prepare them a day ahead of time for the soup for which they are destined, I place them in an enamel-clad Dutch oven with enough braising liquid to cover them – either beef stock or better yet a half-and-half mixture of stock and a good dark Porter or Stout such as “Guinness”. I then slow-cook them covered in a 275 degree oven, with an onion sliced over them and a split carrot and celery stalk for company for about 4 hours.
When adequately cooled, I strip the meat from the bones and set it aside in the refrigerator while straining the braising liquid into a separate container which gets covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. On soup-making day it is easy to skim the hardened fat from the surface of the broth mixture which, re-enforced with additional liquid, becomes the base for the chopped onions, carrots, celery and cubed potatoes (and any other vegetables of choice.) I like to add 2 or 3 bay leaves, some sprigs of fresh thyme and 3 garlic cloves minced fine to the simmering soup pot. When the vegetables are tender but not quite done, shred the waiting ox tail meat into the mix, salt and pepper to taste and serve hot together with a loaf of crusty bread.
: The appeal of a home-made bowl of Ox Tail soup involves kitchen chemistry and family love.
Soup and photo by Al Cooper
There are a number of ways to remain in touch with those of our forbears from whose roots we draw more than a mere resemblance, and the daily fare which we set upon our dinner tables is one of them. My great, great uncle Reuben Coyte left this earth 70 years ago, but he sits beside me still when I dip a ladle into a pot of oxtail soup.