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Coda alla Vaccinara-Roman Oxtail Braise

  • Serving
    6 People
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    208

Ingredients

Family Story

February 2004 saw the last time my father flew from our native Italy to New York. We shared a deep love for the city where he had lived through the ebullient 80’s. In 1985 he invited me to join him and I never looked back. I enrolled at NYU and in barely a semester I bloomed into the New Yorker I still was despite a recent westward move. He was there for yet another round of treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and, citing the soft spot he always had for me, he asked for my company. I flew in from San Francisco, glowing and round with 7-months of baby in my belly. I asked him what he needed, he said he had been jonesing for coda alla vaccinara - a Roman style oxtail braise. “Don’t you think that it’s best cooked in a clay pot?” he added in that way he had of making the non-negotiable sound like a conversation opener. I put my late New York years as a sought after Upper East Side caterer to good use and taxied my belly all over the city, visiting favorite haunts and ticking items off the list one by one, clay pot included. Each tool found, each ingredient purveyed seemed to keep the fast approaching end of my father's life at bay. The anxious mix of joy and dread ballooned the day into an occasion for which, I knew, I needed the right outfit. Between the butcher and the kitchen supply store, I mapped a visit to acquire the perfect oxtail eating dress: a form-fitting, tobacco -brown stretchy sheath with a big and bright red dot positioned to showcase my round stomach. Its color pattern matched the hues of the dish my father craved. I returned, cold and victorious, to the apartment he was renting just a block away from the hospital, and as my father examined the bounty, I made a round of overseas phone calls to various expert sources: mothers, aunts, sisters, cooks trained by grandmothers. I organized the information, passed it on, then settled in my preferred prenatal yoga pose with a book, aware that my father did not feel kindly toward interferences while cooking. Unexpectedly, he asked me into the kitchen to cook together, an unusual show of trust for him, and for me one more link in the chain of unspoken emotional and intellectual chemistry which had always gathered the two of us. The dish turned out exquisite. I wore my sheath, he changed into a dress shirt. We sat and ate and chatted, forgetting why we were where we were. While we laughed for reasons I now forget, a forkful of oxtail missed my lips and stained another dot in the dot. The stain never came off, but I kept wearing the dress. I had it on at the onset of labor pains. I slid into it on my way to the hospital to deliver. I donned it in one of the first pictures with my newborn son I sent my father. That dot in a dot became the visual abstract of the last memory that was all ours, a last word in a lifelong private conversation spun from natural affinity and cemented into a unique bond during our years in NY. It would be another three years before he died, years during which my four siblings and I loved and supported him through untold pain and increasing combativeness. On March 19th of 2007, while my father's life was ending, Italy was celebrating Father’s Day. And while custom dictates that sweet fritters and beignets are the foods to mark the occasion, for me coda alla vaccinara will always be the dish to which I celebrate the blind and extraordinary luck of being born my father's daughter.

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