Some say it’s 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, it 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 of one of the oldest professions in Oaxaca
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 – unless you’ve been raising your own. If attending at the latter, arrive early since the best are bought up briskly. Count on 900 to 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 on hand.
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 four to five animals for a party with upwards of 150 guests. The terracotta blocks used to line the pit need not be fired to the same extent as those used in usual construction, for example, of homes. The better view is to build the oven with minimally baked blocks. Logs are lit by nightfall, the chivero having the option of returning home for a brief break, or napping on site until the madrugada, perhaps two or three 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 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., 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 the avocado tree and the 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 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 p.m., by which time the blood has curdled to the consistency of a succulent accompaniment, and the 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 friends.
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 I’d 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.
Resident Oaxacan, Alvin Starkman, can sometimes be seen scouring the markets for his livestock selections for his next big fiesta. He owns and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.