Idecided to move across the country when I was nineteen years old. It was a strategic separation from everything I knew and found familiar—and for the sake of politeness, I’ll describe it as a mutually beneficial separation. I had recently dropped out of college, and I was frightened to death that I’d be stuck in Brownsville forever, that I’d blown any chance to have the sort of life I wanted but was afraid to hope for. So I decided to move to the polar opposite of my hometown: Seattle. It was 1992, and the Internet boom was just beginning. Even a dropout could make it there—look at Bill Gates.
The last thing I expected was that I’d miss the South Texas food. I’d never even really noticed it; we just made it and ate it. After a while, though, I began to realize that not only did I miss the food, but I also missed the ritual around it, the larger devotional meaning of simple routines and preparations of protein sources and how they harked back to generations past, rooting me firmly in a global context as a human being and making me who I was.
Actually, if I’m being perfectly honest, even that was a bit of a stretch. There were few family rituals worth noting from my time growing up on the Matamoros-Brownsville border in the seventies and eighties, and fewer still that I bothered to integrate into my adult life later on. My family never seemed particularly steeped in tradition, and my memories of Brownsville were mostly of lurching from crisis to crisis, stopping just long enough to barbecue something in between, if my mother hadn’t made Hamburger Helper for dinner that night. My grandmother made huevos rancheros and moles and would sometimes drive us to Matamoros for cabrito, but my siblings and I were all for assimilation and advancement. We didn’t trouble ourselves with the old culture, the old recipes that had never been written down, just passed along in the oral tradition like invocations and witchcraft, always adapted to what was on hand—none of us thought twice about leaving the Spanish rice behind.
There was, however, one ritual we strictly observed: the Sunday luncheon after church. Growing up Mexican Catholic in Brownsville, it was a fixture in the landscape of our days. When my father’s trucking business was doing well, we ate at the Luby’s on Boca Chica Boulevard. The Sunday morning muster would come at about nine, and all five kids would vie groggily for the one bathroom, after my parents had showered and my mother had begun her long process of transformation for the eleven o’clock church service. Somehow we’d manage to pile into the family car and make it to Christ the King Church about ten or fifteen minutes after the service had started. We’d enter through the large rear doors, drawing scowls from the priesthood and lecherous stares from the men and boys when my sisters sauntered by, looking fresh and virginal in their sundresses.
The beatification and exultation of Christ crucified was usually lost on me and my older brother, Dan, itching uncomfortably like Huckleberry Finn in our short pants. Thirty or forty minutes into the service, we’d become restless and unmanageable with hunger, and our fussing would draw painful pinches from my father and threats growled under his breath about what he would do to us when we got home if we didn’t shut up and sit down.
“Voy a darte cinco fajazos,” he’d hiss. I’m going to give you five belt-whippings.
This would freak me out, so I’d fuss more.
“Seis,” he’d say, and there would come another pinch and twist on the fleshy part of my thigh, as if my father had become part lobster, and the pain would make me settle down for a few minutes. But then it was my brother’s turn to start up, and Dad would lobster-pinch him, and I’d laugh at Dan, who was trying to keep from crying, and our mother would shoot us murderous looks from down-pew, until the damned priest would say, “And God be with you; Mass has ended, you may go in peace,” and I’d think, “Finally! Screw these kneelers and their house of worship—get me to the Luby’s and NOW!”
This was church for my brother Dan and me. Probably why we still avoid it.
In the car on the way to the cafeteria, Mom and Dad would chronicle our failures in low, menacing voices while Dan and I hung our heads in shame like Jesuits. They’d list in searing detail the sorts of punishments awaiting us both, as the unruliest of the children. My sisters were well behaved in public and seemingly beyond reproach; they didn’t do things like spit their gum into the hair of the kid sitting in the pew in front of them, like Dan did once.
At Luby’s, Dan and I would always have the fish with tartar sauce, like Jesus would have had, if he’d known how to batter fish and mix mayo with pickle relish. Dad would have roast beef and a bowl of the most unappetizing spinach known to human civilization. Somehow he just loved the stuff.
“He thinks he’s Popeye,” I would whisper to my brother.
“No,” Dan would reply, always a bit more worldly than me. “He thinks it helps his hangover.”
Eventually, Dad had a real reason to drink, when the bust hit Brownsville and, as he watched helplessly from the driver’s seat of his dump truck, the construction business slowed and then dried up entirely. That was when our Sunday ritual turned away from church, and away from Luby’s. Instead, our brunch, which came before the Cowboys game or an afternoon of lazy, unlicensed fishing or shooting beer bottles in the Rio Grande, would be barbacoa, with a stack of fresh corn tortillas, a three-liter Coca-Cola from H-E-B, and the best goddamn warm homemade salsa in the known universe.
As soon as I was old enough, which in rural Brownsville was around fourteen, it was my job to get up before anyone else those mornings and drive to the barbacoa place for our ration. I was expected to have the food on the table before the rest of the family woke up. Dad would leave $20 on the dining room table the night before, and I would find my favorite mixtape and then zoom off about seven-thirty or so in my sister’s Volkswagen Rabbit. I looked forward to those Sunday mornings—the simple rush of freedom as I pulled away, that transcendental sense of liberation when you lock into fourth gear and hit 55 on a dirt road, as some ageless punk rock blares from the speakers. It should give you a sense of how malnourished the rest of my life was that this was magical to me, this drive to some nearby colonia where Dad knew someone who was making backyard barbacoa in a burst of free enterprise that may or may not have been legal, churning out tortillas in their garage on a tortilla-making machine (I don’t know what those are called). I took my job very seriously, though I didn’t really understand why. I just wanted to take the car out for a spin.
My father grew up poor, and his mother had taught him certain adaptive strategies. Feeding an entire family on three pounds of greasy head meat and sweetbreads was one. Sometime later, when I was a bit older, I recall reading about the Native American practice of using every part of the buffalo and marveling at the idea. What did they use the hooves for? And the tail? The eyeballs? What about—gasp—the penis? Amazing, I thought. How impressive and, well, native. My youth and limited knowledge of the world kept me from seeing the parallels between these practices and those of my own father’s family, who were much closer to the mestizo and native tribes of Mexico than my mother’s family, who lived in the city proper, in a gloomy, ramshackle house behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Every part of the buffalo” at Mom’s family’s house meant mixing the coleslaw with the Colonel’s brown gravy. At Dad’s, it meant eating a minced eyeball in a taco.
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).
Perhaps it was the simplicity of the service—the baked, greasy meat wrapped in tinfoil and ferried home in a large cardboard boat, then presented on the kitchen table with two dozen freshly made corn tortillas and that salsa—but for a moment, my loose definition of a family would come together as we launched into the shared meal. Admittedly, it was a rather Darwinist feast, because if you blinked for a second, you’d be left with the mixta, the least desirable bits. The lengua and the cachete were vastly superior. With just a dash of salt and a dab of salsa folded into a fresh corn tortilla, you were biting into something very special.
If we’d known what we were eating, however, we probably never would have touched any of it. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that neither I nor my siblings understood what the hell it was that was populating our tacos. I mean, the lengua and cachete were fairly straightforward, but none of us realized what the mixta was, though we were naturally suspicious of the texture.
I might have gone my whole life living in this comfortable ignorance had I never seen the movie Giant. Growing up with just two network channels out in the Brownsville hinterlands, I was woefully uneducated in my Hollywood classics, so it wasn’t until I was living in Seattle that I finally watched that grim depiction of class struggle in the Texas oil patch. I was mesmerized by Liz Taylor for most of the first act, until that scene where Rock Hudson introduces her to the more-indigenous tendencies of the Mexicans who live on and work his ranch. I instantly recognized their cooking preparations—they were baking something in a pit they’d dug into the ground and covered with tin. I began feeling something nearing pride that what I was watching was my father’s people.
And then Liz Taylor, with her fantastically blue eyes, swooned and fell over when one of the ranch hands served her a spoonful of brains, straight from the cow’s head, and Rock Hudson explained what exactly the barbacoa was. And my stomach did the same, swooned and fell sideways into my liver, which needed a drink. “Aw, shit,” I thought. “I’ve been eating brains all this time. Goddamn them and their poverty.”
Later I understood it to be a moment of revelation that extended further back than I could have previously conceptualized, connecting me directly to a human fabric that went deep into the jungles of Mexico, framing my father’s lineage in such a way that I never would have been able to understand otherwise, never would have previously accepted. And all because of barbacoa, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Barbacoa is still widely available on the weekends in South Texas and other population centers with a large Latin concentration throughout the United States. The practice has evolved, though, and now, when cooked for mass production, the dish is usually baked in a pan in an oven. Deviating further from the traditional method, businesses that offer barbacoa are often actually baking and selling other cuts of beef, like rump roast, along with the cheek and tongue. Eyeballs and brain are increasingly rare, especially after the mad cow scare. In fact, there are very few people left who are still willing to go to the trouble of baking a whole calf head in a pit overnight. In most places, the health department no longer grants permits for commercial in-ground cooking, since it involves, well, cooking in dirt, not to mention the safety hazards. There is only one remaining commercial establishment in Texas that’s still allowed to make barbacoa the old way, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, and it happens to be in Brownsville, a block down the street from my old church, Christ the King. I flew down in September to pay Vera’s a visit.
Before the trip, I asked my dad to scout out the place. The owner, Armando Vera, lives behind my grandmother’s house out in the farmlands in eastern Brownsville, and it turns out that he is related to my grandmother’s family through marriage. Which is another reason I left Brownsville: I didn’t want to relive that final scene in Lone Star and unwittingly marry a half sister.
I flew into San Antonio and drove down with my other brother, Derek. Though he’s thirteen years younger, the “oops” baby born much later than the original batch, he usually accompanies me when I return home these days. As always, the trip was bittersweet. Another of my childhood duties had been to ride shotgun with my dad on his long hauls, keeping him company on weekends and in the summers, so the highways leading in and out of the Valley instantly remind me of the frustration and introspection of my adolescence. Every mile of road and every overpass around Brownsville is like a library of memories for me, and they usually put me in an unsettled, ponderous mood. Derek says he notices a change come over me once we’re past the King Ranch and nearing Raymondville.
“You get quieter,” he told me, this last time. “There’s a look that comes across your face.”
Although I was feeling somewhat somber, the opposite was true for my father, who was excited to have us visit him and also to be of assistance as my barbacoa sherpa. For three days he led me and Derek around town, regaling us with story after story and introducing us to people who shared passionate recollections from every side of the barbacoa experience. One day we had lunch with Tony Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who’s also a family friend. Like my father, he had his own recipes for and memories of the dish, but he was skeptical that I’d find many people still using the traditional pit method.
“If you want to find someone doing it the old way,” he said, “you might want to go out to those small towns, the colonias north of here, where someone is doing it in their backyard. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone still doing it here.”
Dad said he’d heard of a guy on Iowa Street who was using the pit method. “He uses penca de maguey,” Dad explained, referring to the agave leaves that are sometimes used for a covering in place of tin.
Tony nodded. “It’s a veracruzana style,” he said. After lunch, my father, Derek, and I decided to head over and investigate. Dad navigated us to the place, but we couldn’t establish any trust with the pregnant teenage girl at the counter, and she wouldn’t confirm the cooking method in use. She wouldn’t even tell me the name of the owner or if he was willing to talk. I’m not exactly a smooth operator in Spanish. There’s a lot of pointing and yelling and adding an o to English words, so the whole thing comes out like, “The cook-o! El que makes the barbacoa! Yeesss?” The only thing I could get her to agree to was that the meat I was pointing at was barbacoa.
Getting back in my dad’s truck, I thought I recognized where we were. “Hey, Derek,” I said. “Isn’t this where that kid from your junior high was shot and killed and eaten by dogs?”
Derek looked around, squinting. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I think it happened right over there.” He pointed to a house across the street.
The kid had lived a fast life. He was an eighth grader with a Camaro—you can draw your own conclusions. At about fourteen or fifteen years old, he decided he could swim in the deep water and ended up getting shot in that driveway in the middle of the night. By morning, according to the rumors at school, the neighborhood’s stray dogs had been at him. We stared at the property. It was blooming with an unusual verdancy after a season of heavy rain, but otherwise it was just an ordinary house with a carport, dragonflies buzzing lazily about. Life moving on.
People take their barbacoa quite seriously in Brownsville. Even though it’s hard to find the dish prepared in the traditional manner, every person my dad took me to spoke of it with an almost religious reverence. Which means that Armando Vera, as apparently the last legit purveyor of the stuff, carries a burden of cultural preservation. Armando inherited the restaurant from his father, who began the operation back in 1955 in his backyard (hence the name). Vera’s is still located at the same house, the house Armando grew up in, an unassuming pale-yellow building on the corner of a busy boulevard and a residential side street. It’s not exactly a restaurant in the usual sense—sitting and eating is not encouraged—and it’s open only on Saturday and Sunday. Since barbacoa is primarily a weekend ritual, there’s no point in opening the restaurant during the week. Still, it’s become a mecca of sorts for food tourists. When I dropped by on a Thursday, Armando was getting ready for the weekend, overseeing the preparation of the salsas. There was no food to sample (which may be why my dad waited outside in the truck), but we sat at a concrete picnic table in his dining room that looked like it would be much more at home outdoors, and he endured my questions.
Despite his burden, Armando’s a genial, open guy. He told me he can spot the foodies as soon as they walk through the door. “You can tell they’re not from this region,” he said. “It’s in the way they talk, how they dress. I know right away why they’re here.”
Armando himself speaks in that Brownsville bifurcation of language, starting a thought in English and finishing it in Spanish, or vice versa, that tormented me while growing up here and that I now find absolutely fascinating. He pointed to a corner of the room where signs of an old remodel were still evident. “From that corner there to here was our living room,” he said. “That was the bedroom and dining room, and that space right there where the fridge is was the kitchen.” This is in keeping with my personal mythology of barbacoa: to be authentic, it must be sold out of someone’s home.
But though the building has been reno-vated since his father owned it, the process has not. Armando’s pit is lined with fire bricks, which hold the heat well. He mostly uses mesquite because it’s available in abundance. Once the wood burns down to coal, he lines the pit with sheet metal, then he piles in up to 65 calf heads wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
“I have to throw the heads in there,” he told me. “You can’t get close enough to place them because it’s too hot. Then you cover that with another layer of sheet metal and let them go for about eight to ten hours, depending on how much meat you have to cook, the size of the heads—you learn as you go along, like anything else.”
Following his father’s method, Armando uses no spices or salt. All the flavor comes from the head meat itself, and the smoke. “It’s not in the mesquite,” he explained. “It’s in the grease falling into the charcoal that smolders.” The only thing Armando does differently is that he doesn’t present the baked calf head to the customer. “That’s what my dad did,” he said. “My dad used to put the head in front of the customer and take the meat off the head in front of them, but we don’t do it because times have changed. People are in a hurry.”
I wanted to see the pit, but these days Armando is cooking somewhere off-site. The building in his yard that houses the pit suffered fire damage some time ago, and he’s still in the process of rebuilding it. I asked him about the stories that my father and grandmother had told me about seeing the same process at bodas, the wedding celebrations that were usually the biggest events of the season in the barrios and on the farms where they worked and lived, back in the fifties and sixties.
“They used costales,” I said. Costales were burlap bags, soaked in water and filled with the cuts of beef, all the parts of the cow. They’d make the pit, build the fire, and throw the sacks in there.
Armando nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s how they used to do it.”
“And they didn’t burn?”
“Nothing will burn in the pit, not even paper, because there’s no oxygen,” he said. “That’s why they can throw in grass and banana leaves to add smokiness in Hawaii.”
He glanced at the clock. It was time to get back to work. He led me through the kitchen on the way out. At the door he stopped to shake my hand and looked at me hard, in the eyes, like he was trying to figure me out. His hands are huge, calloused, and I suddenly realized that I might actually be older than him, even though he made me feel like that skinny teenager borrowing my sister’s car on a Sunday morning again.
“What’s your father’s name?” he asked.
“Domingo,” I said. “Same as me.”
“Does he go by Mingo?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Ah, sí, lo conozco,” he said, narrowing his eyes. I know him.
“Everybody knows Mingo,” I said, not certain whether I should be proud of this.
The final morning I was in Brownsville, my father got some beef tongue and cheek from the butcher’s shop and made his own barbacoa in his two-bedroom apartment downtown. He lives alone, a smaller man than I remember. He’s been divorced a few times and secretly married once (that’s a long story). He’s lonely, you can see clearly, with most of his family off in a Texan diaspora, living in points north, but he keeps our roots planted. He dutifully tends to my grandmother, who refuses to leave her crumbling house out in the fields she once worked. Visits from his children mean the world to him, and cooking for us means even more.
His barbacoa that morning was delicious, even though he baked it in a roasting dish. In fact, it was better than I remember it ever having been, perhaps because I knew that this meal too would eventually be lost to history. Or maybe I was able to appreciate it more now that I was a grown son identifying the legacy in the offering from his fading father. Whatever the reason, that barbacoa was more memorable than usual, although I was also just really happy that there were no retinas or corneas in my tacos.
Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award. This is his first story for Texas Monthly.