Recalling her Jamaican stepfather cooking oxtails over an open fire in the backyard, restaurant consultant Shakti Baum has fond memories of what she calls “a cut of meat for the people.”
Used in comforting African American soul food, in saucy Caribbean dishes, and in rich soups in Asian and African cuisine, the small cut of meat, which is typically taken from the tail of a cow, is “a meat that has been historically used by those who are challenged financially,” Baum says.
Cooked long and slow as “all of the good meat” is, “there’s always someone’s grandmother or mama making oxtail over the stove or over an open fire,” she says.
But the meat itself has gone through an evolution in terms of its use and perception. In some ways, people are just catching onto its goodness (as indicated by the cut’s soaring prices, which have increased from $5 per pound to well over $10 per pound in recent years). Some people, including Baum, attribute the delayed global appreciation or hesitation of oxtail to its name, which can be offputting to some; as well as the preparation it takes and the smaller amount of meat each pound yields. “But I always tell people, if you like short rib or brisket, you’ll love oxtail. It’s got this gelatin, fatty, richness, that makes this sort of sauce,” she says. “If it’s cooked right, it’ll melt in your mouth.”
To put it plainly, “anyone who is not eating oxtail is just missing out,” she says, but Baum has made it her mission to share oxtail’s goodness with all of Houston.
This November, Baum will host the fourth “Oxtail MashUp — Food, Cocktail, Music, and Art” event in Third Ward’s Project Row Houses, showcasing 17 hand-picked chefs from Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Croix, including chef Ruben Vela of Lucille’s 1913, who was won the MashUp’s People’s Choice Award in 2021, and former MashUp grand champion, chef Reginald Scott. Each will craft a unique oxtail dish for judges and attendees in hopes of winning bragging rights and two complimentary tickets to visit a culinary destination. Five Houston bartenders will also compete, crafting cocktails for cash prizes and a chance to win a People’s Choice or Judge’s Choice award.
“It’s a badass culinary event in Houston, and we have a lot of those here, but this one is completely different than all of them,” Baum says, adding that music and art will also be vital parts of the event, which will invite attendees to walk through the seven curated art houses of Project Row Houses while listening to a “soundclash” by three DJs.
Baum says she decided to launch the event in 2017 after noticing that oxtail and grits were one of her most popular dishes featured at her brunch pop-up, Etta. She began to experiment — making oxtail fried rice, oxtail ramen, and oxtail empanadas with plantains — and enjoying unique combinations, like oxtail bao and saucy oxtails with a glass of wine. The delicious options seemed endless.
“I just went crazy with oxtail because I love it,” she says, and then the question became: who had the best oxtail?
Admiring the platform of Cochon 555, a culinary event that showcases both the versatility of nose-to-tail pig cooking and the talents of chefs and sommeliers, Baum wanted to launch an event of her own, all the while ensuring that she was uplifting creative and high-end chefs — namely Black chefs and masters of oxtail — who often aren’t included in the city’s culinary events.
“I thought, ‘I am going to invite all of the chefs I love who are doing great food,’” she says.
Using her relationship with Project Row Houses, for which she has catered, Baum hosted the first oxtail-focused festival in the art-focused area in 2017, inviting chefs from all over the country to showcase their skills and interpretation of the dish. The next year, she teamed up with Warren Luckett, owner of Branwar Wines and co-founder of Black Restaurant Week, to further establish the MashUp.
Since then, the festival has evolved, featuring top, award-winning, and James Beard-nominated chefs, including Dawn Burrell and Chris Williams of Lucille’s. Last year, the MashUp welcomed more than 300 people to indulge in oxtail dishes. Now, in its fourth year, Baum says she’s excited to bring it back.
“Oxtails are amazing,” Baum says. “That’s just factual.”
Competing chefs will include:
- Osei ‘Picky’ Blackett, Brooklyn’s Ariapita
- Joseph Boudreaux, Houston’s Boo’s Burger and The Tipping Point
- Cory Burns, pitmaster of Burns BBQ in Houston
- Randy Duncan, pitmaster of Daddy Duncan’s BBQ in Brookshire
- Kurt Evans, CYL Hospitality of Philadelphia
- Clinton Jackson-Potts, CJ’S Masterpiece in Houston
- Darius King, Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers in Houston
- Mason Leverett, of B.I.T.E Kitchen
- Daya Myers-Hurt, Galveston’s Fish Company Taco
- Khalieb Rufael, Houston’s Spice Boyz
- Ryan Savoie, Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company
- Reginald Scott, the Smoke HTX — 2021 Oxtail Mash Up grand champion
- Shannen and Stacy Tune, Houston’s Craft Burger
- Ruben Vela, Lucille’s 1913 — 2021 People’s Choice Team winner
Competing bartenders will include Megan Cunningham of Grand Prize Bar, Bevin Biggers of OH Bevin!, Jennifer Guerrero of Miss Carousel, Ed Warner of the Ed Experience, and Ryan Wendell Perry of Julep.
The event will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, November 6. Project Row Houses, 2521 Holman Street, 77004. Tickets ($95 to $145) can be purchased on Eventbrite.