Señor, Will That Be Testicles or Head?
say its one of the oldest professions in Oaxaca, yet
it garners little if any respect from most of the population
notwithstanding the tradition and ceremony 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 caprine cattle that are cooked in the ancient
style, including ram and sheep. Since the early nineties the
most popular (read unlucky) of these inhabitants of the hills
has been the borrego pelibuey. Frequently one sees
signs at roadside restaurants on Sundays offering BARBACOA,
which although generally not prepared in the fashion as described
below, affords an opportunity to taste, and tempt the buds
for another occasion when the art, science and pomp of the
process can be witnessed.
The ritual, reserved for larger fiestas marking rites
of passage such as special birthdays and anniversaries, though
variable, begins with the purchase of the appropriate number
of candidates at a private farm or livestock market
youve been raising your own. If attending at the latter,
arrive early since the best are bought up briskly. Count on
900 1100 pesos per beast, each one of this size feeding
about 25. Plumping them up for a few days never hurts, if
you have the space and inclination.
The chivero, frequently with associate and/or young
apprentice, arrives early a day before the comida to survey
and give instructions before beginning. Are the vessels, additional
accessories, related foodstuffs and oven appropriate for the
tasks 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 afternoon consists of the slaughter
and skinning, cutting and cleaning, with procedures marked
by care and precision, right down to evacuating the insides
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 saved for 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
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 4 5 animals for a party with upwards
of 150 guests---the terracotta blicks used to line the pit
need not have been fired to the same extent as those used
in usual construction, for example of homes, and the better
view is to build the oven with minimally baked blocks. Logs
are lit by nightfall, the chivero having 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. Then atop this layer is strategically
placed a stratum of rounded river rocks which will absorb
and hold the heat pending completion of the cooking stage.
At about 7 or 8 am the previously prepared produce, with select
innards, is placed on the scorching stones in an oversized
cast aluminum casserole with water, over which is placed an
iron grate sufficiently forged to hold the weight of the quartered
meat including head and organs
either plain, or enchilada.
The blood is readied for simmering in a hefty metal saucepan.
A similar receptacle contains large corn kernels. All is covered
with leaves of both avocado tree and maguey plant. But the
coverture of the contents continues. On top of all is placed
the petate, a large mat of dried palm leaf or reed,
following which a sheet of laminated metal covers the entire
pit so as to ensure that heat cannot escape. A sheet of plastic
or vinyl is optional. For further assurance a mound of dirt
is then shoveled on top of the lamina. Tradition dictates
that once the oven and its contents are sealed for baking,
a bottle of mezcal is placed within the hill of earth.
The foregoing steps, from when the first match is lit, 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.
Guests tend to arrive between 2:30 and 4:30 pm, by which time
the blood has curdled to the consistency of a succulent accompaniment,
and entrée has been grilled to perfection, its juices
having dripped into the casserole thereby creating a thick,
flavorful, bouillabaisse style vegetable and meat potage.
At their option, males in attendance at the chosen hour may
take a shovel and assist in the unearthing of the oven, with
the one encountering the piping hot bottle of mezcal, its
contents by then smooth to the extreme, being given the privilege
of serving shotsful to others in the fraternity of helping
The gumbo is served, followed by the most tender and tasty
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 I threw 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 Id arrived with the prize to its ultimate destination,
almost all but bare 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 testicles.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
) combines the best attributes of quality downtown Oaxaca
hotels (comfort and service) with the quaintness and personal
touch of country inn style Oaxaca lodging. The Casa Machaya
Oaxaca accommodations have the added advantage of Oaxaca tours
being offered by co-owner Alvin, the Oaxaca destinations expert
for a major international travel website, and consultant to
documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca and
its central valleys. Alvins more than 65 reviews and
articles about life and cultural traditions in the state attest
to his knowledge and passion for Oaxaca.
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