by Meredith Bethune
If you order barbacoa in in most parts of Texas, you’ll most likely end up with savory, slow-roasted beef—usually served on, or with, tortillas. But barbacoa isn’t an actual recipe, rather, it’s a generations-deep, slow-roasting method, using fire or hot coals, that’s thought to have originated with the Taino people in the Caribbean. Versions of the roasting method spread to all parts of the Americas, where an underground roasting pit of hot coals covered with leaves was often used. The native peoples of what became Texas were also known to have utilized this underground method for roasting meats such as deer and javelina. But with the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico in the 1500s—along with their roaming herds of cows, pigs and goats—the native landscape, as well as the local diet, were forever changed, and the word “barbacoa” became irrevocably attached to one particular cut of meat.
Of the new animals now available to the natives, the lumbering longhorn became prized for its heartiness, strength and ability to produce rich meat under harsh environmental circumstances. But as part of the lower realm of the ranching culture, the disenfranchised Tejanos could typically only afford the cheapest cuts of meat—like the head. Ultimately, they would call upon their ancestral cooking skills to transform this unappealing cut of meat into an exquisite meal.
Barbacoa prepared the traditional way consists of the head of a steer wrapped in maguey leaves, placed in an underground pit and slow-cooked over buried, hardwood coals, where it’s kissed with the pungent flavor of mesquite smoke until the succulent cheek meat pulls away nicely from the bone. “Because of the long cooking, the meat becomes sticky and delicious thanks to all of the melting collagen,” says Mexican cuisine cookbook author and chef Rick Bayless. Once cooked, nothing was wasted—the eyes, tongue and brains were also consumed.
In his new cookbook, “Truly Texas Mexican,” Adán Medrano connects his family’s barbacoa pit in San Antonio to the earthen ovens discovered just a few miles away at the Olmos Dam archaeological site. He remembers his mother preparing the head before his father and uncles placed it in the ground. She carefully rubbed it with a spice mixture particular to San Antonio. “We used black pepper, garlic and a little bit of cumin. Sometimes chile rojo but not normally,” he recalls.
Closer to the border near McAllen, cookbook author Melissa Guerra—whose family has lived in the region for 16 generations—says she and her husband Kiko season the head only with salt. “The head is usually wrapped in clean kitchen towels, then wrapped in a burlap bag,” she says. For accompaniments, Guerra prefers corn tortillas but admits that flour tortillas are probably more representative of the region. She considers chopped onion and cilantro an essential garnish, but choosing between red or green salsa is a personal preference.
“While growing up, it was common for people to have a hole in the ground,” Guerra says. “And that was just their barbacoa pit.” Since the sheer volume of meat on one steer’s head produces enough food for about 50 people, the dish is most often found at weekend gatherings or on holiday mornings. “You invite everyone over for morning barbacoa,” she explains. “That’s when it’s ready—if you put it on the night before.”
Traditionally reserved for these family celebrations, barbacoa wasn’t sold commercially until the 20th century. Restrictive health codes over the years have all but done away with businesses offering underground-pit-roasted barbacoa, but Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas, claims to be the only commercial establishment left in the country still making barbacoa this way. Owner Mando Vera, along with his wife and adult children, continue the legacy that his father started in 1955. On Friday evenings, Mando lightly seasons the heads, smokes them overnight over maguey coals and pulls the meat for takeout orders that begin coming in as early as 4:30 a.m. In keeping with the weekend barbacoa tradition, Vera’s is only open on Saturday and Sunday mornings. “We’ve just always done it that way,” Mando says.
Sesos (brains) advertised on Vera’s faded menu are no longer available because of a USDA ban, but the eyes—or “Mexican caviar,” as Mando jokingly refers to them—are still available and quite popular. “An older person would want the eyes and brains,” notes Medrano. “But the younger people don’t want any of that. They just want the cheeks. It has to do with differences between the generations and how urbanized we’ve now become.”
Rooted in cooking methods that are thousands of years old, barbacoa continues to evolve as more people trade domestic rural life for bustling cities. But, according to Medrano, barbacoa will still remain culturally significant no matter what form it takes. “Through the years of oppression and racial discrimination,” he says, “we have been able—within the walls of our home—to create our own foods and keep our identity going.”