Oxtail soup was a staple during Pixie Jacquin's college days. Oxtails -- that's the actual tail of a cow, steer or bull -- were cheap, available, tasty, but, most importantly, cheap in the early 1960s when she was in school. She and her roommates would buy a few, then simmer up a big pot of soup with the help of Knorr Swiss' packaged oxtail soup mix.
Oxtail soup was a staple during Pixie Jacquin's college days.
Oxtails -- that's the actual tail of a cow, steer or bull -- were cheap, available, tasty, but, most importantly, cheap in the early 1960s when she was in school. She and her roommates would buy a few, then simmer up a big pot of soup with the help of Knorr Swiss' packaged oxtail soup mix.
"I think we existed on it," Jacquin of Peoria says. "We didn't have Ramen noodles back then."
A decade or so later, when she was in the child-rearing stage, oxtails were still the starting point for a cheap meal.
"I remember picking up chicken drumsticks at 10 cents a pound. I'd call all my friends who had a thousand kids and tell them drumsticks were on sale. If drumsticks were that cheap, oxtails were just about free."
Frozen tails were close to $5 a pound at some stores. Sounds reasonably cheap compared to choicer cuts of beef, but the oxtails of Jacquin's memory weren't in the choice-cut category. They were - and are - considered a byproduct or variety meat, like beef neck bones or beef tongue.
Besides, the tail is little more than bones, fat and marrow. And beef prices, in general, are down.
So what happened?
"I can't tell you why they've gotten so expensive," says Carroll Wetterauer, president of Raber Packing Co. in Peoria.
"Maybe it has to do with trade and export," says Ephraim Leibtag, an economist who specializes in retail beef prices at the USDA's Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C. "Our commodities guys may know."
"I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help," says Ken Mathew, a commodities analyst at the research service.
Well, maybe another question is, does anybody care?
The answer is a simple yes.
A host of celebrity chefs have rediscovered the lowly oxtail, known best as the main ingredient of a classic English comfort dish, oxtail soup, and are touting its rich, gelatinous flavor. British chef Gordon Ramsay says a version by legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier is his favorite recipe. Chef Mario Batali waxes eloquently about the dishes his Italian grandmother prepared with oxtails. Oxtail stew is a staple on the menu of West Indian restaurants.
As it turns out, oxtails are the main ingredient for popular dishes all over the world, or at least wherever people eat beef.
Some oxtail lovers suspect renewed interest from celebrity chefs is driving renewed popularity for the oxtail and, naturally, higher prices.
If only the mystery of rising oxtail prices could be solved so easily.
Wetterauer and the USDA economists can only speculate about the reasons, but their speculations involve supply, demand and the rise of corporate slaughterhouses.
Mathew says trade in variety meats has picked up a lot in Mexico and Asian countries such as Korea and Japan. Wetterauer says he heard the price of oxtails jumped because they're popular in China, and the Chinese are willing to pay higher prices for them.
"Beef tongues are another thing that went sky high for awhile because the Chinese were buying them," Wetterauer says. "But their prices are coming back down."
So, demand is up. But there's also a matter of supply.
There aren't many small companies left that do their own slaughtering, Wetterauer says. Major packing houses don't take time to deal with less popular and what used to be less expensive parts, such as shanks, marrow, neckbones or oxtails. "A lot of that stuff gets boned out and made into ground beef now," he says.
A similar fate befell beef short ribs. Wetterauer remembers when they were 49 cents a pound.
"Now they're $3.98 (a pound) because they're just not available," he said.
And there's one more thing he doesn't know about oxtails.
"I don't know how they came to be named oxtails."
Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.