How a Calf Head Roasted in a Pit Became a Popular Mexican Delicacy

Barbacoa

“The historical method of preparation of calf head developed from the practice of baking an entire calf in the ground overnight, a practice designed to feed a significant number of people with a single large protein source, baked in the only structure available everywhere for free: the earth itself. This was a crude but effective technique: a hole was dug in the ground and lined with porous or volcanic stones or bricks to absorb heat, then a large bonfire was set alight inside it and allowed to burn down to coal, at which point the calf would be wrapped in leaves and tossed in and the cover sealed so no oxygen could enter the pit. The fuel, the material used to line the pit, and the material used to cover the pit all vary from culture to culture, but the basic principles are found in native cookeries the world over, from the Polynesian brick-lined pits used to cook entire pigs to the tandoors used across the Indian subcontinent.

“Where did the below-ground method originate? It’s difficult for either archaeologists or anthropologists to pinpoint, but in the New World, the method tends to correspond to a map of Spanish colonialism, so it isn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility that Native Americans, who had previously been roasting their kills over an open fire, learned to bake whole animals in the earth from the conquistadores. On the other hand, the method also shows up in places like Maine, where they cook beans and clams in the earth, and I don’t think Cabeza de Vaca quite made it up to Bangor, so the origins remain firmly in the scope of speculation.

“At any rate, the traditional method of preparation, which included the entire animal, eventually gave way to a predilection for the soft tissues of the head. The word ‘barbacoa’ is actually a corruption of the phrase ‘de la barba a la cola,’ which translates into ‘from the beard to the tail.’ In South Texas bricks or stones line the pit, mesquite is the heat source, and the whole thing is covered with sheet metal. When I was a kid, the barbacoa that emerged was composed of three parts: cachete (cheek), lengua (tongue), and mixta (a mixture of brains, lips, eyeballs, and probably, if you’re not careful, ears).”

- In Texas Monthly, National Book Award finalist Domingo Martinez recalls eating barbacoa with his family in South Texas, and examines how the meat was traditionally cooked and served. Read more food stories in the Longreads Archive.

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Photo: Neil Conway

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Mike is the managing editor at Longreads, on the editorial team at WordPress.com, and is the editor of The Billfold. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
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