By: Ashleigh Shanti
My Great-Grandmother Inez from Mayesville, South Carolina, was an award-winning gardener and blue ribbon-winning canner and food preserver. When this lower-class homemaker, wife of a peanut farmer, and mother of nine children was in the kitchen—which was almost always—she was desperate. Desperation is defined as a loss of hope or a great need that can make you act irrationally. It’s OK to approach cooking with a little desperation, maybe even necessary. I’ve mirrored the women in my family and their own forms of “desperation cuisine,” and I’ve learned that to make good food, all cooks should approach the kitchen with their own sense of despair and hopelessness.
As an 11-year-old boy, my dad was once tasked with pulling an onion from the garden for Sunday supper and slicing it for gravy. My great-grandmother rarely asked him to do this job—and his inexperience was soon obvious. When it came time to peel the onion, my dad continued to peel layers of the onion away, not really certain where to stop. Toward the end of his onion butchery, my dad was left with what resembled a tiny pearl onion, with all the “scraps” in the trash bin. My great-grandmother, quick thinking and in a state of shock, remembered the onions growing wild all over the yard and quickly came up with what she called “Yard Onion Gravy,” a family staple still today. This was desperation cooking.
To Great-Grandma Inez, stewed oxtails were desperation cooking. Almost annually, my great-uncle who worked raising cattle would bring her as many odd cow parts that her rusty outdoor freezer could hold. These gifts included livers, tripe, tongue, sweetbreads, and—though details are few—legend has it, she even attempted to prepare cow udder once, to everyone’s chagrin.
Out of all these, oxtail was easily the favorite. There were always at least a few left whole for my great-grandfather to butcher. He would set up on the backyard picnic tables and go to work on the oxtails with his handy hacksaw. Oxtails were only on the table once a year, so this sort of ceremonial process was an important one that all looked forward to. My great-grandmother would ready the white rice and beans and prepare the broth, chock-full of onions and her latest garden goodies, in anticipation of the oxtails’ arrival. The oxtails would get salted, then into the broth and oven they went. Hours later, the resulting product was tender-to-the-bone oxtail swimming in luxurious, shining jus. It was certainly a dish worth waiting over a year for. It’s moments like this in which desperation cooking is defined, transforming the food of a pauper into something fit for a king.
As the chief of financial procurement for the United States Coast Guard, my mother’s despair looked a lot different than that of Great-Grandma Inez’s. From shuffling me around to extracurriculars, attending galas, and long hours at the office being a common theme, finding ways to put a well-balanced meal on the table quickly became paramount. Though she won’t admit it, eating out, boxed Rice-A-Roni, and leftover meals from Grandma’s house made up the bulk of our weekly diet. Desperate to redeem the awful habits of the week, she’d spend all weekend preparing the ultimate feast, often including oxtails as a nod to my dad’s upbringing. She brought her own form of desperation to the plate and made something amazing every single weekend.
Today, the food world has become enamored with not just the origins of its food but also with full-food utilization and a healthy resistance to food waste. As a chef, this feels like my form of desperation. I feel privileged to be allowed to see where our food is raised and grown. This privilege also carries with it a huge responsibility. I carry the responsibility of ensuring little to no food waste while maintaining a care and respect for the products we utilize. That is the desperation in which my creativity thrives. In cooking, particularly the desperate kind, goodness is birthed from despair. These Stewed Oxtails are desperation cooking.
Click here for Ashleigh Shanti’s Stewed Oxtails recipe.
Ashleigh Shanti is Chef de Cuisine of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina.