Question: My husband and I have wondered about the origin of oxtails. Lately, they have been labeled beef oxtails. Surely we don't raise oxen just for their tails, yet I have never seen any other part of the ox on sale in the market.
Answer: Oh, yes, you have--you just didn't know it. Understanding the origin of oxtails requires a bit of knowledge of history as well as some understanding of sex as it applies to beef cattle.
In most countries in the world, beef includes the meat of cows, bulls, heifers and oxen. Cows are the mature females of the bovine species, bulls are the adult males, heifers are the young females that have never given birth and oxen are the castrated males of the species.
In the Old World, and for a period of time in our history, oxen were used as beasts of burden. They were a lot easier to handle whenever a heifer passed by, as the result of surgery. They were not slaughtered for food until they had outlived their usefulness as beasts of burden. Only then was it discovered that oxen not only were easier to handle when they were alive but had a better flavor when they were eaten. As a result of that discovery, we continue to castrate young male beef animals even though we no longer use them as beasts of burden.
However, we no longer call them oxen, we call them steers--except for the tails, which we still call oxtails. We also use the term oxtail to designate the tail of all beef animals--cows, bulls and heifers.