Friday, April 21, 2017

Everything New is Old Again: Oxtail Soup

Being an avid watcher of cooking television, I've noticed some of the more hipster oriented shows have been venerating a certain bovine dish. To be fair, they're not claiming it's new; on the contrary they're hailing it as a classic, but if you're like me the hype eventually begins to get on your nerves. So here's to the tardy end of the ox - the tail - and the soup it becomes.

To be honest, ox tail soup probably has existed since before mankind domesticated cattle. I'm sure hunter-gatherers were figuring out ways to use the last part of the water buffalo to pass through the door, after all those were the days of waste not want not. However, the oldest recipe I could find for Ox Tail Soup dated back to 1896, the same year Fannie Farmer published her famous and still in print cookbook. The Handbook of Substance Stores: for the Use of the Army of the United States was published by the US War Department in the age of westward expansion and gold fever and was intended as a guide for stocking the strings of forts that enforced America's emanate domain. As you'd expect from a government publication, the instructions on how to make good ox tail soup is less than clear:

As you can tell, the intent was more how to purchase ox tail soup than to make it. I have to admit, though, that the lack of a detailed recipe is nothing new to anyone who pours over old cookbooks. It seems there was a time when a "cookbook" was less an instruction manual on how to cook certain dishes than a list of hints and tips intended to guide an already seasoned and schooled cook to success with their dishes. Note that the recipe above talks about the proper consistency, the amount of bones found in the ox tail, and the fattiness of the soup, but doesn't get specific about ingredients or amounts.

At about the same time the US Army was producing its field guide for stocking the larder a little company from New Jersey was getting its act together. Fruit vendor Joseph Campbell and ice box manufacturer Abraham Anderson banded together to form the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company - a catchy name, isn't it? In  1897 the company hired Dr. John Dorrance who would invent the process which would make Campbell's fortune - condensed soup. In 1904, with an advertising blitz which introduced the pudgy, be-freckled Campbell's Soup Kids, the company's full line of 21 different soups were introduced to the public - including ox tail soup.

As with any company that has been around for over a hundred years, offerings change as the tastes of the public change and somewhere in the dusty bins of time, Campbell's Ox Tail Soup was shelved. I doubt that the hipster rediscovery of this culinary artifact will bring about a reintroduction, the trends of the twenty-something generation are too fleeting and the moment a big corporation catches on the fad has jumped the proverbial ox cart. None the less, an interesting trip down memory lane...I wonder if mock turtle soup will catch on next?

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