I have been remiss. In all the time I’ve been posting on this blog I have never photographed my dinner. So here it ..was. You might think that I made a dog’s dinner of it, but not so. A kindly Jamaican lady on Youtube showed me how to cook an oxtail. She pointed out that it was in fact, a cow tail. First catch your cow/ox. “Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock/ Now they are all on their knees,/ an elder said…” Not exactly the Christmas spirit. She spoke of ‘our oxtail’ in ‘our pressure cooker’ with ‘our spices’. Pressure cooker? I don’t have joint ownership of a pressure cooker with any Jamaican lady, no matter how kindly. It’s a lie, Your Honour. I hardly know the woman. Anyway I have a mortal dread of pressure cookers ever since my father made porridge in one and blew the valve off. I still speak in admiration of his courage as he grabbed the device and ran for the back door, drawing a line of porridge along the ceiling. It looked like the Battle of Jutland or a reconstruction of Vesuvius on a bad day. Porridge—bad for the blood pressure, despite what the experts tell us. Anyway I fried (off) our vegetables and browned (off) our oxtail and added (in) our spices. I popped it in our oven and waited… And waited. It took a while. I thought about Hardy’s meek mild creatures. The oxen opened up the great expanses of the world, accepting their burden every day and waiting patiently through the night for the labours of the morrow. That Hardy language is catching. No wonder the Romans made conquered opponents pass under the oxbow (Juga, the symbol of subjugation.)
I felt guilty. I thought of Dean Swift and his description of the carnage left on dinner plates every day all over the world. I remembered the account of Picasso jumping up from the table with the skeleton of the plaice or sole that he had just devoured and using it as a stencil to produce a piece of art worth, no doubt, millions. Henry Moore made a good living from items just like these, cast in bronze and ten feet high. I felt hungry and guilty. I plated (up) our oxtail. It was delicious.
This is a taba, used in a game of skill in the Southern Cone of South America. It is a bone bleached by the sun, possibly from a sheep or a young colt. It was used for divination in the temple of Hercules. It was played by the Greeks at Troy. Patroclus, friend of Achilles, was a bad loser. It was used to predict the fall of that city. ‘I feel it in me bones.’ Who hasn’t used the phrase? The practice spread throughout the Mediterranean civilizations and came to the Americas with the Spaniards.. Gambling at the taba, was so rife that the practice is illegal nowadays, except, by dispension, on election days. Everything is on the hazard on election days.
By the way, how are your teeth, the bones most visible to others? I was told once by a careers officer that the minimum requirement for recruits to the Irish army and air corps is twenty seven teeth. These could be decisive in close combat. I fear that I would be kept in the reserve line, called upon for some back-up gnawing of the enemy. These young lads in the prime of their lives at Waterloo, were presumed to have had excellent teeth. So much so, that these young heroes were dug up for their teeth some time after a decent interval had elapsed. Waterloo teeth were highly prized. After a slightly longer interval, their bones were also dug up by a grateful populace and used for fertilizer. So much for the glory. Queen Elizabeth the First had a mouthful of black teeth from overindulgence in the craze for sugar. No ‘ring of confidence’ there, Out of consideration, her subjects blackened their teeth to match. George Washington, a slave owner in his time until late in life,, had a set of gnashers made of elm wood. Try not to picture that. It explains his grim and disapproving expression in portraits, even on the currency. In the days of sail, when warfare took an obscene toll on the limbs and lives of sailors, doctors were known as ‘sawbones’. Long John Silver, who sailed with Captain Billy Bones, the apocryphal story tells us, remarked to Jim Hawkins, that if he had his life to live over again, he would take more care of his health. Ahar!
Jamaica, sugar islands and men before the mast put me in mind of slavery. “Put your back into it.!” Not only oxen felt the lash in the march of civilization. Maybe I’ll settle for a few scrambled eggs for lunch, although I read that Natalie Portman opposes the taking of eggs from hens because they are female. Where can we turn? It’s back to porridge…
Turn to music perhaps….Oh you should see Mr Jones as he rattles the bones. Old Parson Brown fooling round like a clown. Aunt Jemima, who’s past eighty three, shouting and full of pep, ‘Watch your step. Watch your step…’