February 15, 2023

Annual Oxtail Fest Celebration Raises Funds for Black History Museum

By Anne Levin

The expression “high on the hog” refers to the choicest cuts of meat. Not surprisingly, enslaved people ate “low on the hog,” cast-off cuts that would otherwise be fed to the animals or discarded while the enslavers tucked into what was considered the good stuff.

Oxtail, literally the meat from the tail of a cow, was not among the fancy offerings. But it turns out that those who shunned it didn’t know what they were missing.

“Here’s the thing about oxtail,” said Donnetta Johnson, executive director of the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) of Skillman, which will hold its second annual Oxtail Fest at Put’s Tavern in Hillsborough on Sunday, February 26 at 3 p.m. “The enslaved people got all the cast-offs, and oxtail was considered one of them. But what the enslavers didn’t understand was that this is a delicious, succulent, flavorful piece of the animal. So the enslaved took this and created wonderful meals with rice, vegetables, okra, collard greens, and more. The irony is that it is now considered fancy food. It has undergone gentrification. It has  done the lobster thing.”

SSAAM’s winter Black history fundraiser, first held in 2021, is back by popular demand. It will feature an African American/Caribbean fusion oxtail preparation as well as Cuban-style and Haitian preparations. Guests can choose between Johnson’s Southern/Jamaican oxtail derived from her mother’s recipe from Selma, Ala.; and her father’s Jamaican family recipe. The Afro-Cuban oxtail is derived from board member Jackie Fay’s mother’s Cubano family recipe. A guest chef will prepare Haitian oxtail.

“He’s actually Puerto Rican,” said Johnson. “So we will have oxtail from three traditions to celebrate with our larger community. There will also be okra, collard greens, appetizers, and treats, plus a whole array of pies and cakes. Our guests should definitely wear elastic.”

A special drink at the festival will features “peaches and spirits,” described in a release as “a nod to enslaved and freed African Americans who worked in the Sourland Mountain peach orchards, which were among four million trees throughout the state. Before the 1899 San Jose scale blight, half of these orchards were located in Hunterdon County.”

SSAAM is now in its sixth year. It was established, after decades of research, to tell the story of the unique culture, experiences, and contributions of the Black community of the Sourland Mountain Region. Johnson, who came on board right after the pandemic, said the organization has made significant progress since it opened.

“We have gone from a strong founder-led organization to what we are now embarking upon, which is board-led,” she said. “It is really exciting. All of the improvements we’re making are so the foundation is strong, will be sustainable, and will be there in the future. We expect the organization to outlive us.”

Johnson continued, “It is time in America, to put it quite frankly. We have not really faced up to the legacy of slavery in a substantive way — to really look at so many of the issues that are a result of systemic racism, happening across all of our population. SSAAM came along at a key moment. And then 2020 happened. If that didn’t make clear how important it is for our entire community to work together to decimate racism and structural racism, I don’t know what would. Then the pandemic came along and just underlined it and highlighted it in bold.”

The museum exists “not for the purpose of shocking or shaming, but for the purpose of taking a very clear look at it, and understanding our way to work together to fix it,” Johnson said. “That’s our message. We’re about history reclamation and social justice, and we’re forward.”

The Antique Barn at Cashel in Hillsborough, owned by event co-host Jen Bryson, is being staged for the occasion as Put’s Tavern. “Harry ‘Put’ Compton, a formerly enslaved person and Revolutionary War veteran, reputed to be a fifer in the Battle of Princeton, started the tavern after the war,” reads the release. “Put’s Tavern was a place near Rock Mills where the people of the Sourlands freely socialized with one another, regardless of race and color. The isolated Indigenous, Black, and White people of the Sourlands created an interdependent, racially mixed, and integrated community that was unusually harmonious for the day, but not without issues.”

The event raises funds for operational expenses and the future home of the museum. Visit ssaamuseum.org/tickets to participate.