Soup

A Soulful, Older-Than-My-Mother Take on Bone Broth

February  8, 2018

Of all the quintessential Southern food I learned to cook at the heels of my mother—smothered pork chops, skillet cornbread, a proper gravy with meat drippings—neck bones and lima beans surely was not one I loved. Or even liked. It smelled funny. It took hours to finish cooking. And when it was complete, when the pork neck bones had simmered and transformed into tender meat falling gingerly off the bone alongside lime green lima beans, it didn’t look pretty either. The neck bones had a distinct twang to them, and, c’mon, lima beans?

My very Nigerian father loved pork neck bones with lima beans, however. I suppose it was because it reminded him of the dishes he’d grown up eating and later learned how to cook himself—meat braised low and slow, simmered on the stove for hours on end, the flavors melding anew to something else. Once the lid to the pot was lifted, the steam billowed in your face. Neither my sisters nor I requested that she make the stew that often, though.

Photo by Loveis Wise

In fact, in a recent conversation with my mother about neck bones and lima beans, she didn’t even remember the handful of times I witnessed her at the stove preparing it. But it meant something to her. In some grand, warm gesture, she wanted to keep cooking a dish my dad liked, something that made them feel more connected to one another. She served it to him as he waited patiently at the kitchen table, drumming his fingers. My father thanked her for making something new and unexpected that also smacked of nostalgia.

I never thought to reflect on what neck bones symbolized, and what they meant, beyond the surface—that they were not my favorite food. To me, and perhaps my mother too, it represented a cheap, comforting meal that took little effort or intervention to execute. But now, on the other side of reflection, on the other side of wondering about the connectedness of the dish, it’s clear to me on one level. Like so many other examples of soul food, it is representative of enslaved Africans taking the scraps of what they were given, scraps no one else wanted to fuss with, and altering it into something they could rely on for sustenance, inner warmth, and the memory of doing their best to survive amid perilous circumstances.

Though I can make those connections cognitively, practically, logically, when thinking of my own family history, it becomes a lot more muddled. I know where my father’s family originates from—Lagos proper and Enugu State. When I was a child in elementary school, assigned a project on my family tree, my father was able to go back at least three generations and tell me names of family members. In some cases, those names accompanied stories either my father knew of firsthand or had been told by others. But my mother, most likely with ancestors from West Africa, too, called her mother, her sisters, her brothers, trying to elicit names to fill the physical blanks of my assignment. Names, faces, stories, anything.

Scraps have always been a tenet of African-American cookery, long before nose-to-tail eating was declared trendy.

I had just as many blanks in elementary school as I do now, and it may always be so. These ancestors are supposed to empower me from the grave, but calling them to mind and honoring them feels inauthentic and empty without being sure. I can’t embrace and capture the legacies and strength of a vast unknown, at least not in ways that would emotionally and spiritually satiate me. There’s no peace in questions—but is there peace in neck bones and lima beans?

In Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, James C. McCann muses that soul food forges a connection between Black Americans and Africa, because slaves carried cultural traditions—including food and cooking—with them. Of course, through time and generations, these foods and dishes evolved, but they share the same root.

The same root my father, hailing from Lagos, shared with my mother, from northern Alabama, a descendant of slaves. My Dad used a teeming bowl of neck bones and mushy lima beans to bridge the gap, and my mother tried to find comfort in all this unknown as she cooked from memory and spirit.


Neck bones are exactly what they sound like—the bones of the neck of whichever animal they originate from, be it pork or beef. The one thing both have in common is a scant amount of meat surrounding the bone, yet a wealth of flavor to be tasted once they’re cooked down. Use them as a flavor builder in its own broth or within sauces or vegetables.

Neck bones are relatively inexpensive and can be found in Chinese or Korean markets, or Southern grocery stores like Piggly Wiggly, Winn Dixie, Ingles, and scores of others, packaged in styrofoam and covered with cling wrap. Some Italian American red sauces, often referred to as gravy, use neck bones as their secret ingredient, along with creole and cajun dishes which rely on them as the holy grail for seasoning gumbo to perfection. They’re even in the starring role of gamjatang, a Korean spicy neck bone soup alongside potatoes, noodles and a sprinkling of ground sesame seeds, green onions, hot peppers, and perilla leaves. The love and lore in leftovers, the scraps most people overlook, has always been a tenet of African-American cookery, and folded into the cuisine of many other cultures as well, long before highly-lauded, mostly white chefs declared nose-to-tail eating trendy.

Neck bones and lima bubble in a big pot, creating its own broth—bone broth, mind you—to ladle over a bed of fluffy white rice or dip crispy skillet cornbread in. Toss in some collard greens to contribute an extra umph and make this potlikker sensational. The stew reminds me of how fused I feel to my Nigerian heritage because of the certainty of it, because lines and direct connections can be drawn and made, as well as the haunting and hurtful acceptance of doubt when it comes to my mother’s family.

Serve with rice or cornbread. Photo by Rocky Luten

My first and last names are Nigerian, through and through, and yet my middle name, Marie, is not. It is the name of my mother’s mother, and countless other women in her family, sandwiched between the bookends of sureness. Neck bones and lima beans: a reminder of what I can look to when I have the time, the mental space, the emotional energy to hold onto what has never been known.

I don’t make neckbones often. It is not a dish I call on for many reasons, moods, or occasions. But when I need to be reminded of all I don’t know, all I may never be certain of, and to wonder out-loud at what is greater than myself within my family, it’s there to be reached for.

10 Comments

FrugalCat April 24, 2018
My mom and I loved chicken necks. My dad and brother wouldn't touch them. Mom and I would nibble away, sharing one neck as a treat after a chicken dinner. It would never have occurred to her to ask the butcher to buy extra necks. Thanksgiving- the turkey neck was a rare prize. Imagine my surprise when I visited a supermarket as an adult and discovered you could buy packages of chicken or turkey necks by themselves! I'd had no idea, as all our meat when I was a child came from a butcher shop.
 
Clelia February 11, 2018
Lovely! My father is Italian and one of my favorite dishes he cooked for me growing up was a pork neckbone red sauce (as you mention). It was so, so good, but I have never tried to replicate it myself. Your piece is inspiring me to try it...
 
Nichole S. February 11, 2018
White people are white peopling really hard in this comment section ( I say as a white woman) I loved the story that went along with the recipe and I adore how food offers us a connection to our past. I clicked on this link because I needed even more inspiration for a dish I will be cooking for the first time today. After meeting my husband's Navajo family for the very first time 2 weeks ago and they served me a similar dish that connects them to their past; lamb neck bones with steamed corn. An incredibly simple dish that I have a feeling I will in no way be able to replicate, the kind of dish that takes years to learn and perfect even though there's only four ingredients! Thank you for the inspiration and for the wonderful story <3
 
Evelyn V. February 10, 2018
Thank you Nneka Okona for sharing such a personal experience and recipe.
 
strapless February 9, 2018
I don't know why authors today always have to slip in a diss to white people. "...highly-lauded, mostly white chefs declared nose-to-tail eating trendy.." Not quite true. Highly-lauded, mostly white chefs declared nose-to-tail eating DESIRABLE and food *writers* declared it trendy. Why is it bad that some white folks have realized that the offal, the cheeks, the neck and tail bones, etc. can be used to make good food? Yes, the use of only the "best bits" reflects the (historically most white) privilege of using the easy to cook, most nutritious and desirable parts, and throwing away the rest. So why is becoming more conscious and conscientious a BAD thing? Are you going to say that yet again whites are guilty of cultural appropriation? Because we're not! I am pushing 50. My mom turns 80 next year. She grew up in a farming area in a tiny town downstate Illinois. They used EVERY BIT of every animal, grew their own vegetables and some fruits, preserved, canned, etc. Yes, historically in America, white people have been privileged and persons of color underprivileged and grossly mistreated. But ask anyone who grew up in rural America, poor America or (often) both - using every bit of an animal was the norm for economy and survival. It's true that *most* white people did not grow up having to make do with scraps, as American slaves did. But persons of color do not have a complete monopoly on privation, and while I recognize the general truth of what you say about the trendy nose-to-tail "movement", the implications of your statement are still insulting to many of us.
 
Author Comment
Nneka M. February 9, 2018
Your only takeaway from my entire essay was being offended by a "diss to White people" and not using your offense as an opportunity to do some honest inner reflection. As we say in the South, Bless your heart.
 
Annie S. February 9, 2018
I love essays that explore the history of how and what we eat in our family of origin. <br />I am grateful to those who thoughtfully share these memories. <br />BTW pork neck bones made my mother’s red sauce the gem it was.
 
delbor February 8, 2018
Your father was from Nigeria, and this was his thing. What does that have to do with slavery and "African-Americans"?<br />
 
Author Comment
Nneka M. February 8, 2018
If you missed the obvious connection between those three things in the thousands of words I wrote, I'm afraid I don't know what to tell you.
 
Nikkitha B. February 8, 2018
Hi, I edited Nneka’s piece. While I don’t want to speak for her, this piece explores both her Nigerian ancestry and her African-American identity. The dish is one of the links between them.