It is almost dark as we finish building the mound that covers a pit of glowing volcanic rock and coals from hickory wood. Deep in the mound is a savory treasure of seasoned beef that will spend the night being steamed and smoked.
It is to be the feast for the celebration of spring as it is our first outside cooking. It is also the birthday of our son, Logan, who is turning 16. Our family has gathered and we have a crowd of about 15. While waiting for the hickory wood to burn into coals we roast hot dogs and fish in the pond.
Barbacoa is a traditional cooking technique that migrated out of the Caribbean and into other languages and cultures but especially that of Mexico. This traditional barbacoa involves digging a hole in the ground and placing some meat (usually a whole sheep, goat or cow head) with a pot underneath it, so that the juices can make a hearty broth.
The meat is covered with maguey cactus or banana leaves and left to cook in the earthen oven overnight or for about 12 hours. Barbacoa is one of the most mysterious and obsessed-over pieces of Mexican cuisine.
Throughout Mexico, barbacoa varies by region. In the far north, cow head predominates. Barbacoa makers use goat in the area around Monterrey. Pig is served in the Yucatan, and sheep in Hidalgo. What unites the various barbacoas is the cooking method, developed by the Chichimeca Indians of northern Mexico.
We began the process by building a fire in the pit. This takes about five or six hours for the coals to be right. Starting in the afternoon we combine this job with checking out the fish situation. It is great fun in the spring to catch fish from the stocked pond. We have a small boat that allows you to get on the water and fish.
Nothing in the world seems to impart such a peaceful surrounding as the afternoon sun, the water, grass and trees. The busy day and all the rush simply fall aside. Since we work on the fire in the afternoon we usually combine the fire with roasting hot dogs and making smores.
We season the meat with our own version of a barbacoa marinade. Utilizing the Mexican flare we combine onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper with chicken broth, red wine and olive oil. We allow the meat to sit in this mixture for several hours or most of the day.
Traditionally, the head of a cow or goat meat is then wrapped in maguey or banana leaves. We prefer a more American fare and use chuck, brisket, and cheek meat. Since the southern Ozarks do not have a supply of banana leaves we end up wrapping the meat in foil and then moistened burlap sacks.
A cauldron of hot water is placed in the pit which is about 3 feet deep with hot coals and lava rock in the bottom. A grill is put on top of the cauldron and the meat is placed there. The pit is then sealed and covered with damp earth.
The next morning it is with a great sense of anticipation that we go back to the pit and open the treasure. The beef is opened and “pulled” into pieces. This meat is then used along with rice, beans and the trimmings to either eat with tortillas or over the rice and beans.
Traditions are what builds families and this tradition borrowed from Mexico has become a favorite right of passage from winter into spring or just anytime you want to celebrate.