“The Undesirable Parts” – myth & facts of the African American Relationship with Whole Animal Parts

We have long associated the delicacies of our cuisine with the horrible conditions our enslaved ancestors were forced to endure. When we think about oxtails, pig feet, ears, snouts, tongues, gizzards, kidneys, chitterlings & animal heads, we often think that our ancestors were forced to use what was consider the scraps to europeans enslavers and thrown to our ancestors because they were undesired and therefore only good enough for the enslaved.

We were taught to see these cuts and animal parts as what our ancestors had to do to make do and not starve, so they learned how to make these parts edible. I will admit as a chef, I spent most of my life and career with the same thought process, we eat these things because it was all our ancestors had. I carried this until my ancestors sparked a passion in me to explore our cultural food ways & to not be afraid to be a soul food/southern specialty chef.

As I began to explore our history through food & through the ancestral tradition of Lucumi/IFA, I began to look at the “Undesirable Parts” of our food in a different context than just the pieces thrown back at my ancestors from their captors.

Enslaved women processing a hog

I allowed myself to think about how they prepared these parts & how the dishes were more sophisticated in its process than most would even think to consider. I thought about the amazing flavor of stewed oxtails over rice & how the oxtails would braise for hours just to get them just tender enough to melt in the mouth. Then the memory of eating Souse Meat on saltine crackers with my grandmother & as a child I didn’t question what it was made of, I just knew it was a really good snack & I loved it. Souse meat is a terrine style dish made from boiling of a pig head, with spices and then set to create a cold meat log. Then there is hash, from the humid islands of South Carolina, a dish made from slow cooking the head of the pig and then chopped finely to which a red sauce of tomato and other produce and herbs is added and slow cooked for 1-2 hours. The finished product is served over rice.

Let’s not mention the dreaded chitterlings. I hated the smell of the pigs’ intestines soaking in my grandmothers sink. She would make sure every Christmas for my eldest Aunt Shelia. Grandma would clean them thoroughly, seasoning them well & boil them slowly. I hated seeing those things on her plate covered in Hot sauce. I felt that even though these things didn’t always look or smell appetizing, we had to keep them in our diet because it was all our ancestors had & we needed to be grateful to these parts because it sustained them & to respect the undesirable parts in honor of our ancestors struggle to survive. But my journey to honoring and elevating our food ways showed me just how wrong I was about these parts of the animals deemed only worthy for the enslaved.

Yes, it is true that our ancestors had more access to the less attractive parts of the animals for food, and their enslavers gave them the scarcity to keep them dependant, but what I didnt realize is that in their free time or rare off days, they hunted wild boar, they fished, & they gardened so they could survive. All the food they ate wasnt always the meager rations of the enslavers, they had hunting knowledge, farming knowledge and the skills to survive and that is why they were sought after by the evils of enslavers.

I realized I didn’t have to respect these parts only because I have built a sense of guilt with them being the descendant of enslaved Africans. I respect them because these parts were a part of our food DNA long before our ancestors came to the new world in bondage.

I was having a conversation about my food ideas with my Godfather Assim, in regard to food and the Orisha when he told me a story about a friend of his that helped me dispel the myth about our Ancestors access to animal parts and changed my outlook on the “undesirable parts”. He told me that he was helping his African friend slaughter a goat for a holiday feast he was preparing for the holiday. He told me “He used every single part of the goat, for various dishes, nothing went to waste, so Bella, our ancestors didn’t just use these parts because that’s all they had access to, they already came here with the knowledge of whole animal cooking. They already knew how to prepare these parts.” It was in that moment that the myth about our ancestor’s use of the “undesirable parts of the pig, goat, & cows” was blown for me.

After that conversation, I started to look at the of preparing these parts and the incredible skill it takes to prepare, Oxtails, Souse Meat, or Hash. I thought about the process & the ingredients added and I saw skill oppose to the story forced on us through the years. I understood the incredible knowledge to cook the liver just right & how sage, thyme and rosemary made a terrine of head meat taste like a delicate silkiness that melted in your mouth. You can’t make Hash taste the way it does if you didn’t already know how to work with the parts of the animal that makes hash what it is or know that tomato and peppers will give it just the right amount of flavor. And let’s not forget how gizzards added to the cornbread dressing give it just the right amount of meat while still allowing the cornbread to be the star of the show. One does not develop these skills of cooking these parts in the middle of their reality without first already holding the knowledge of working with every part of the animal.

What I realized was our ancestors, before they came to the new world had a respect for the animal’s life and honored it for its sacrifice to keep us sustained, so they didn’t take the animals life and discard any part of it. They ensured that the animal would be honored by using every part of it as a food source. So, when the horrors of slavery happened and our ancestors found themselves faced with the scarcity of food, they didn’t mind the parts of the animal, their enslavers deemed as uneatable. When the enslaver would only pay the hunter for his labor of tracking and hunting a wild boar, with its head, hooves, tails, ears etc, our ancestors already knew what to do with these parts & were able to make meals that today are being coveted as a delicacy within the community of those with European descent.

Our ancestors didn’t just make do with these parts, they survived because they already knew how to prepare every single part of the animal. They were a people who honored the lives of the animals they raised for food back in their homelands of Nigeria, Benin, The Congo, Ghana, Mali & Senegal. Oxtail stew from the American south to the Caribbeans didn’t just happen because the only part of the cow our ancestors had was the tail. Oxtail stew happened because our ancestors honored that cow’s life by ensuring every part of him would be used to sustain themselves and the community.

These foods are a part of our culture and our past. They weren’t the scraps given to our ancestors; they are the life source of the animal that our ancestors respected and cared for in a delicate cooking process. They are not only edible but are becoming such a hot commodity that a pound of oxtail that use to be less than 3 bucks a pound are now 20 plus dollars a pound. So, the next time you hear some say, these were the scraps that our ancestors had to use, let this blog post remind you that these parts an apart of a legacy of people who held respect for animals and already knew how to prepare every part from the rib meat to the heart, from the ears to the skin. To our ancestors no part of the animal was deemed undesirable because the animal sacrificed its life so that we could sustain ours. So be proud of being a people of WHOLE ANIMAL COOKING. – Chef Bella Jones.

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