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Oxtail, Head-air, and a Swim


At dinner last night I had a piece of Lake Superior trout with oxtail on top of it.  Five green beans and a fried polenta ball with roasted corn inside. Nifty.

To my knowledge I’ve only had oxtail once, in Rome, when my daughter was having a semester abroad in college. She and I ate lunch one day in Trastevere. A chef buddy back home named Franco had spoken appreciatively of Trastevere. Ballanno, cantanno. Non lavora nessuno.  They sing, they dance. Nobody works.  

Oxtail was on the menu.  The meat came in a stew. I can’t say for sure, but I think there was a little chocolate in the sauce.  And bones. A tail, you know, is not a meaty appendage, even on an ox. Eating this dish required surgical precision with a knife and fork–or you had to go all-out visigoth, pick it up in your hands and twist the pieces, pulling the joints apart, teasing out the meat with your fingers, sucking and licking.

I was in Rome, if not the cradle at least the mattress or the comforter of civilization. Delicacy was called for.  But then, I was hungry, and it did not look like a lot of meat. I eschewed flatware, and in short order, all hands on, had smeared a good deal of the sauce all over my face. I felt gross and indecent, and very happy. Looking apologetically around the room, I was being totally ignored. “No one cares,” the server said. “It’s what happens when you eat oxtail.”

I asked the server last night, “The oxtail, are there bones?”

She said there were not.  And indeed, bits of meat were pulled from the bone, looking brown and thready, a little pile of it on top of a hunk of fish.

Who thinks of these things?  Oxtail and trout? Was it good? Yes, it was okay.  Did the oxtail enhance the fish? Not particularly. How about an olive on top of a scoop of ice cream?  

It takes chef-ly imagination, I guess.   

In the restaurant where he cooked, Franco was known for “fantasia.” In Italian fantasia, pronounced fon-tah-ZEE-uh, means something like imagination, in the kitchen a kind of free-spirited ingenuity. Taking off the shackles. Pastas, roasts, desserts: he just knew what to do. He was unconventional and dazzling.

When we talked to him one night, it might have been an off night, he looked bleary-eyed. There was a girl in his life, he said. Heather.  He called her “Head-air.” (Italians have trouble with the -th sound.) She had put a little too much ecstasy in his life, by ecstasy I mean of the 3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine variety, and Franco was invited by local authorities to return to from whence he had come. We never saw him again. I don’t know what happened to Head-air.  

“What’s the Italian word for oxtail” I ask my wife. She’s eating a chunk of chicken stuffed with rabbit. Why not do that?

I take a drink of wine that’s called “sorriso” on the menu, the Italian word for smile. Smiling, I say, “I know it’s coda of something.”   

“Coda di bua,” she says.

Cow vocab has always been a struggle for me. Mucca, manzo, bua, vacca. Which word do I use in a restaurant? Please don’t let me say, Pardon me, do you have cattle on the menu?  

“Di bua,” I say. “That just doesn’t sound right.”  Imagine me saying that to my wife. It’s her language.  Still, from Trastevere, I remember coda di something else.

Later, by virtue of Google, I find coda di vaccinara  Vacca, cow. What’s vaccinara? Looking further, I see the vaccinari were butchers in Rome. So it’s butcher style oxtail. Like you get hunter’s style rabbit. Or mariner’s style tomato sauce.

There’s still a little daylight left when we get back from dinner. Behind the place we’re staying is Lake Michigan, like 50 yards away. It’s been hot and humid all day. We were four hours in the car. I take the little boardwalk down to the water, test it with my foot. The lake is flat, clear and cold, irresistible. I brought a swimsuit but feel an urgency at this moment that is too much. Seeing no one near by, I pull off my shirt and pants, and dive in. You forget just how cold. How good. I execute a few strokes and rolls, then haul myself back up to the water’s edge, stand there dripping. And see, 30-40 feet away, a couple sitting in the beach grass. They’re having a chaste moment.

So am I, having my own moment in my skivvies, feeling mildly indecent, but also very happy.

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