Photos and styling by Angelina Marie, Short Eared Dog Photography
Soul food, Tremaine Brown says, is best described as “culinary artistry meets survival.” The owner of Shi Lee’s Barbecue and Soul Food Cafe describes these popular dishes as being a “MacGyvered” method of cooking, which dates back to slavery. When it came to food preparation, the harsh realities of American slavery required invention and creativity. Slaves had to survive on anything and everything they had available.
“That’s the essence of soul food,” Brown says on a chilly Wednesday. “You use what you have. You make it work.”
In those days, plantation owners kept the best cuts of beef or pork for themselves and their families, then tossed the leftovers to their slaves. Black families learned to feed themselves using animal parts the rest of society considered “trash,” including pigs’ feet, intestines, cow heads and tails.
Outside the plantation, these parts had almost no value and were usually thrown out. On the plantation, they were how slaves survived.
“They had to learn to use them, to the best of their ability,” Brown says.
By improvising, he explains, Black families found a way not just to survive on the unwanted parts of a cow or pig, but to make the food delicious. Survival food turned into comfort food, and these family recipes—passed along from freed slaves to their descendants, generation after generation—eventually found their way into the mainstream of Southern culture.
Brown says the path of soul food into the mainstream has parallels within other ethnicities and nationalities. “If you had a poor upbringing and were Irish or Italian, there were meager dishes that were for the working man to afford,” he says. For instance, both shepherd’s pie and pizza, respectively, were considered peasant food in those cultures. “But with that culinary-artistry-plus-survival, your mom would turn it into one of your favorite dishes.”
Traditional soul food, Brown says, is just comfort food. “It takes you back home. It was the food that we were raised on and that we could afford. It never tasted like trash to me.”
African Americans began to embrace their heritage midway through the 20th century, and the Civil Rights movement helped soul food emerge from home kitchens into restaurants and cookbooks. “A lot of what folks used to cringe at are now mainstays,” Brown says.
Oxtails are one of those soul food mainstays. “Oxtails were one of the items I grew up with, along with neck bones, smothered chicken, smothered catfish,” says Delvin Wilson, owner of Delvin’s Restaurant & Catering. His mother, Mary, was a talented home cook. “That’s how I got drawn into cooking.”
Raised in Houston, Wilson first learned to cook many of his favorite dishes at home before he entered the fine dining world. That career eventually brought him to Amarillo. After executive chef stints at the Amarillo Country Club and Park Central, Wilson opened his restaurant on N. Hughes Street, in the middle of the North Heights. It has since become one of the most popular and well-reviewed restaurants in town.
For this issue, Wilson shares his recipe for oxtails, a soul food staple he sells on special every Thursday. These cattle tails were once relatively unwanted—or, at least, inexpensive to buy—but have since taken on pricing that reflects their popularity. “You can’t get any more traditional than oxtail,” Wilson says of the dish’s role in Black culture. “To be called a comfort food or soul food restaurant, you’ve got to have some traditional items that you grew up on.”
The dish’s popularity is broad. “Oxtail goes across a lot of traditions, from Black to Hispanic to Cuban, Jamaican,” he says. “One thing about the meat is it’s very rich, a lot of flavor. It’s very satisfying and just does something to the tastebuds.”
For many of his customers, Wilson’s dish reminds them of childhood. When he first began serving it, he would sell about 10 pounds of the delicacy a day. “Now I’m doing 20 or 30 pounds of oxtails every Thursday, and it’s still not enough. We open at 11 and I’m sold out by 1,” he says.
He credits his mother for his recipe. “It’s sweet and simple. There’s nothing elaborate about it,” he says. “It’s one of those foods you can take a fork and pull the meat off the bones, but it’s really a finger food. You’ve got to get down and dirty. You have to get personal with it. It’s not a white tablecloth [food].”
Prepared by Tremaine Brown, this beloved side dish isn’t technically a regular menu item at Shi Lee’s, but might as well be. “It’s one of the favorites,” he says. “You’d think mutiny would happen if we didn’t have it that day.”
Starting with a head of cabbage, this stir-fry dish is relatively simple. “Use just about anything you have—bacon, sausage, your favorite meat. I always throw in some shaved carrots and celery and jalapeños for color, or other fresh greens,” says Brown. “Season it to taste and just sautée it all together. It’s really easy to make.”
It may be uncomplicated, but the dish itself has deep cultural significance and a history dating back to the days of slavery. “As they were working the land, slaves would be able to pick a few herbs here and there, a few fresh greens here and there,” Brown says. “Those go perfect with a stir-fried cabbage dish. They learned to make grease out of animal fats and had that same knowledge to use it with a dish like stir-fried cabbage. If they were able to turn out something like this, it’s a little silver lining.”
Shi Lee’s Stir-Fried Cabbage
1 large head cabbage
½ to 1 pound diced meat (smoked sausage, hotlinks, turkey, cooked bacon)
1 cup shaved carrots
1 cup celery, diced
¼ to ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, lemon pepper, and sugar to taste
To kick it up a notch, add jalapeños or your favorite pepper or spice to taste
Start with a large skillet filled with about 1 inch water. Add butter, oil, meat, carrots, celery and peppers over a low- to medium-heat.
Cut the head of cabbage into fourths, removing the solid stalk, and then into shredded strips. Add the cabbage strips to the sauteéing ingredients. Mix thoroughly while adding other seasonings. Cabbage will create its own moisture. Cook cabbage until desired texture, but be careful not to overcook to mush.
Plate and enjoy! Can easily be a complete meal coupled with some fresh cornbread.
Makes 4 servings
Delvin’s Southern-Style Oxtails
2 ½ pounds beef oxtails
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large yellow onion, medium dice
1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 package Lipton Recipe Secrets Beefy Onion
4 cups beef broth or water (If you use water, add
3 beef bouillon cubes or 2 teaspoons beef base.)
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup oil
Add oxtails to a stockpot with beef broth or water; add spices and produce. Cover pot with lid and cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours at low to medium flame. Check every 30 to 45 minutes until tender. Make a roux: Mix flour and oil to make a paste. Add slowly to pot, stirring constantly, until thick. Cook for an additional 5 minutes and serve.
Makes 4 servings