A rich Oaxacan culinary tradition
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
Some say it’s one of the oldest professions, yet it garners little if any respect from most of the population notwithstanding the tradition that has been its trademark for generations: the chivero, or slayer and preparer of goat, and its barbequing in an in-ground oven. There are a number of other caprine cattle that are cooked in the ancient style, including ram and sheep. Since the early nineties, here in Oaxaca the most popular / unlucky of these inhabitants of the hills has been the borrego pelibuey, a variety of sheep.
Oaxaca (wa-HAW-kah) is a colonial city tucked away in a valley surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur range in south central Mexico. Boasting no less than 16 indigenous cultures, it should come as no great shock that such a custom has been maintained in the state for hundreds if not thousands of years. However the modern institution of baking a variety of meats in a pit extends far beyond Mexico, and in fact is practiced in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Hawaii, and much further abroad. After all, before the advent of coal, gas and electric ovens, if circumstances dictated something other than grilling over an open flame, our ancestors had little choice but to innovate in this fashion.
What began with humankind’s Darwinian development of a simple invention of necessity has become a highly ritualized and esteemed convention.
Whether you’re traveling, visiting, working or living the life of a retiree abroad, as you become integrated into your host society, on balance you’ll be invited to partake in at least a portion of the pomp and ceremony associated with barbacoa, as it’s more commonly known in Mexico.
In Oaxaca the custom is reserved for fiestas marking significant rites of passage such as key birthdays and anniversaries, and weddings. It cuts across class lines, observance ranging from campesinos in the smallest of back road villages, to the upper class in the backyards of their luxurious homes in gated suburban communities.
While varying only minimally depending on local mores, practice begins with the purchase of the appropriate number of candidates at a private farm or livestock market…unless you’ve been raising your own. One counts on each beast serving between about 25 and 40 people, depending on size. Plumping them up for a few days never hurts, if you have the space and inclination.
The chivero, frequently with associate, family member and/or young apprentice, arrives a day before the comida (the largest meal of the day in Mexico, beginning anytime between 2 and 4 pm) to survey and give instructions before beginning. Are the cooking vessels, additional accessories, related foodstuffs and pit appropriate for the task at hand, or will there have to be last minute purchases or adaptations? Considerations include: type, dimensions and quantity of leña (firewood); requisite river rocks; age, size and composition of oven; type of grate; and even sufficiency of loose soil.
The better part of that first afternoon consists of the slaughter and skinning, cutting and cleaning, with procedures marked by care and precision, right down to evacuating the inside of each and every inch of intestine with the nimblest of digital movements, akin to, and no less delicate a process than spinning yarn from raw wool. Nothing is wasted. Virtually every entrail, organ and liquid is gathered, prepared and set aside for later use. No less important to the ultimate creation of a culinary coupe, parallel provisions are attended by others elsewhere in or around the home, principally the select array of vegetables is cored, cut and cubed, and herbs and seasonings sequestered. Best to have a healthy compliment of friends and relatives on hand. If you’re asked to attend a day early, you now know why.
By evening the maestro is ready to begin the process of curing the oven. One which measures roughly 3’ x 3’ x 4’ should accommodate about 4 animals for a party with upwards of 150 guests---the terracotta bricks lining the ground cavity need not have been fired to the same extent as those used in usual construction of homes, and the better view is to build the oven with minimally baked blocks. Logs are lit by nightfall. The chivero has the option of thereafter returning home for a brief break, or napping on site until the madrugada, perhaps 2 or 3 in the morning, when he must add further firewood to ensure continued consistency of heat. Atop this layer is strategically placed a stratum of rounded river rocks which will absorb and hold the heat pending completion of cooking.
At about 7 am, more wood is added and allowed to burn off, but not before the skewered hearts are barbecued over the flames---a taco delicacy---and several agave or maguey leaves have been charred. The previously prepared produce, with select innards and water to cover, now in an oversized cast aluminum cauldron, is placed on the scorching stones, as is a mixture of large broken corn kernels with a separate set of flavorings. An iron grate containing the quartered meat including head and organs---either plain, or enchilada (spiced)---with avocado leaves and the grilled agave placed atop, is gingerly lowered onto the vegetable receptacles. The blood, encased in stomach lining, is readied. On top of all is placed the petate, a large mat of dried palm leaf or reed. The subsequent coverings, at least one of which must be firm enough to withstand the weight of a final heavy layer, include one or more of a large flat grid of lengths of reinforced steel; a sheet of laminated metal; and a spread of sturdy plastic or vinyl. For further assurance a hill of dirt is then shoveled on top of all, then compacted with the aid of a light hosing of water. Tradition dictates that while the oven and its contents are being sealed for baking, a bottle of mezcal is placed within the mound of earth.
From when the first match is lit, the foregoing steps are much more than mere convention. They are carefully calculated, much in the same fashion as the most specific time and temperature stipulations contained in a difficult baking recipe in a gourmet cookbook. However I have yet to determine the scientific roll played by the wooden cross set on the crest of the mountain of tierra firma…other than symbolic of burial.
Guests tend to arrive between 2:30 and 4:30 pm, by which time the blood has curdled to the consistency of a terrine style accompaniment, and entrée has been roasted to perfection, its juices having dripped into the casseroles thereby creating a flavorful, vegetable and meat potage, and a thick starchy accompaniment, the corn having turned to mash aided by the meat’s juices. At their option, at the chosen hour, males in attendance may take a shovel and aid in the unearthing of the oven, with the one encountering the piping hot bottle of mezcal---contents by then smooth to the extreme--- being given the privilege of serving shotsful to others in the fraternity of assisting amigos.
The bouillabaisse is served, followed by the most tender, savory and succulent meat imaginable, with sides of sangre and the cooked large grain, preferably to the sound of live music. And yes, a limited number of guests are presented with the available crania having been opened so that they can scoop brain and/or eye into tortilla and top with salsa before indulging. Care must be taken to avoid insulting one to whom a head has been promised. At a joint birthday bash thrown with a fellow Aquarian, en route to delivering the delicacy to a comadre I wished to honor, a friend stopped me at his table and by the time I’d arrived with the prize to its ultimate destination, almost all but a bare bone skull remained. Finally, the testicles should be offered to others worthy of special tribute. But once again be mindful. At that same celebration, a five-goat-affair, someone absconded with all ten testes.
Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978, taught for a few years, and subsequently attended Osgoode Hall Law School. From 1986 to 2004 he was the litigation partner at Banks & Starkman, specializing in family law. Although a frequent traveler to Oaxaca since 1991, it was not until he ceased practicing law that he took up permanent residence in the state capital in 2004. In his spare time Mr. Starkman takes couple, families and small groups touring the craft villages, towns on their market days, ruins and other attractions including more off-the-beaten-track sights; writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca; translates from Spanish to English for a Oaxaca-based website; writes a legal column for a Canadian national antiques newspaper; is occasional consultant to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca; and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.