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An Italian Adventure in … Montana?

How I ended up cooking oxtail at 12 years old.

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Just to be clear, my family was not cooking oxtails in Montana in 1988. We were not saying to each other, “Hey, there’s this great, traditional, proletarian Roman neighborhood dish, it takes four hours and uses cast-off meats, yum!” (I would venture that awareness of regional Italian cuisine was not acute. Spaghetti, pizza, lasagna: That was Italian.) We were not braising much. My family did not cook with wine, or even really drink wine.

But at 12 years old, I was babbling about coda alla vaccinara, the classic Roman butcher’s stew. And in strange and lucky ways, I was in the perfect place and time.

The name lit some kind of fire in my young mind. Yes, we would make this.

Necessary contextual points, in roughly logical-ish order:

  1. My hometown, Missoula, may have been small and mountain-bound, but it is a university city with a mind of its own and an eccentric ethos.
  2. My family, bless it, lovingly nurtures its young oddballs.
  3. Around this time, my mom and I had embarked on some serious kitchen experiments. It was the time of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and worldly trade winds could be felt in American kitchens, ours included. I was a book-addled child with dreams above my station, and cooking international dishes (mostly Italian) was one of my things. My mother kindly remembers me as “an amazing developing person,” rather than a young fanatic, but then she’s biased.

So, coda alla vaccinara.

Why was this dish on my mind? I had started swapping letters (which people still did in the late ‘80s) with a family friend residing in Seattle, a kind fellow who recognized and encouraged a few of my youthful preoccupations: books, cooking, traveling. He had, by God, been to Italy, and he was teaching me about myriad regional dishes beyond the spaghetti/pizza/lasagna trinity.

One day, a typed recipe arrived, explaining the origins and preparation of Roman-style oxtail stew. Coda. Alla. Vaccinara. Tail, butcher’s style. The name lit some kind of fire in my young mind. Yes, we would make this.

My mother later confessed that the prospect of cattle-tail cooking in her kitchen inspired a revulsion she also feels for pickled pig’s feet, but she nevertheless agreed to help me find the ingredients for the dish. Plain-old beef stew was a family standby, and you could squint at this recipe and see a grizzled Old World uncle of that dish. And we eat game in Montana, lots of it. A dish of culturally unfamiliar meat was not beyond us, just new. Which, I see now, is a pretty great life lesson for dinner planning and many other challenges.

A good Missoula meat shop supplied the knobby, bony little nuggets of tail, and everything else was an easy grab at the regular grocery store. Today, of course, you can Google up a lifetime supply of oxtail stew recipes. (Amanda Hesser’s looks about right, though there are many schools of thought, particularly on spice.)

The basic recipe is simple enough. We chopped celery, carrot, onion, then added flavorful bits of pork. (I’m 99 percent sure we used bacon instead of the canonical pancetta or guanciale, cuts then unknown in Montana.) After that sizzled together gloriously, the tail got a deep browning in olive oil before simmering together with a big can of tomatoes, red wine, and the spices. Into the oven it all went.

Yes, I remember eating it—the meat sliding off the bone, the unctuous richness of the sauce. Mostly, I remember the smell, the heady rush of wine and lush tomatoes. At the time, I probably thought that was the aroma of sophistication. Now, I recognize that it was the essence of love and encouragement. With two kids of my own, both poised for their own kitchen adventures, I can see our oxtail stew through my mom’s eyes as well as my pre-adolescent own: We were cooking coda alla vaccinara, but most importantly, we were cooking together.

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