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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.
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.
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.
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.
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 3 pounds pork neck bones (see note above)
- 1 16-oz package frozen lima beans (see note above)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground sage
- 1 teaspoon ground thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- salt and pepper, to taste