The Making of Lamb Barbacoa: Superstition, Sacrifice, and Suspense

[Friends, if you are at all sensitive about the preparation and consumption of meat, I respect your position and encourage you to skip this story.]

As a child growing up in Central Michigan, I was raised on a diet of venison, lake fish, and produce from our family farms. We foraged for berries and mushrooms, and cracked walnuts free of their pithy outer bodies on a flat, cool rock with a ball-peen hammer. (Tip: It helps of you drive the tractor tires over the walnuts first.) So, unlike many Americans who live far removed from agricultural production and outdoorsman activities, I never questioned where our food came from.

Still, despite being surrounded by a family of hunters, I have never personally initiated the demise of a creature without scales or shells. Happy to let others hunt, I would eagerly await the arrival of recently departed deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail and the like. The bagging of a buck, in particular, was an exciting time. From the comfort of my grandparent’s farmhouse, a shot could be heard ringing out across a distant field. Based on the direction of the crack, we would bet on which hunter would soon emerge from the lane to get the tractor and go retrieve their already field-dressed deer.

I close my eyes and can conjure the sensation of passing from the biting cold November wind, into the barn where my father and uncles hung the animal up by the neck and began the laborious task of skinning the hide. The air was thick with the minerality of blood, as sharp knives carved away the loins, rounds, heart, and lesser cuts that would be ground with pork suet to become “hamburger”, homemade sausage and jerky. The deer killed in those mid-November months would nourish our family for much of the year with delicious, lean protein.

Here in Baja California Sur (BCS), hunting is not a common activity for people in the more populated regions, but the ranch-born connection to domesticated herds is elemental across Mexico. Cattle, goats, and sheep roam the arid but plentiful ranchlands beneath the high peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Their unique flavor can be appreciated daily in the form of tacos, tortas, or rich bowls of consommé served in shops and by street vendors. And, for special occasions, slow-cooked, whole-animal dishes such as barbacoa and birria set the bar for Mexican hospitality and celebration.

Lambs corralled with a view on a small family ranch east of Todos Santos, BCS.

Wanting to understand the culinary tradition and process of making barbacoa, I enlisted the help of Alfredo Sargento and his wife, Rosa. Oaxacan-born and a long-time resident of Puebla, Alfredo began my education by explaining that the creation of Barbacoa is not a spectator sport. He said that morbid curiosity without proper respect would taint the meat. So, if I wanted to learn, I would have to participate beginning with selecting the animal. You can’t argue with superstition so I readied myself for a difficult cooking task long overdue for a meat lover like me—we would sacrifice a lamb the next day.

Early in the morning, my cooking companion and translator, Chef Marina Garnica, and I drove to a small ranch home where we were greeted by a canine welcome crew and a very curious goat family.

A curious kid and his suspicious parents.

We selected a black, 45 kg, short-haired lamb on the sheer basis of size. The rancher’s young son expediently roped and hog-tied her feet so that she could be weighed and placed in the back of Alfredo’s truck. I watched her closely, empathy seeping from my every pore. She was stressed but not struggling or bleating. Her quiet, resigned docility tugged at my unprofessional heart strings.

We arrived at a small ranch in the small village of Pescadero outfitted with an open-air makeshift kitchen under a shady palapa. A 3 feet deep, brick-lined “pib” or underground cooking pit resided just to the side of the small structure.

Our kitchen for the day offered water from a hose, a stone wash basin, a wood fire, and a couple small surfaces for cutting.

This is where the magic happens. One of the earliest methods of ancient cooking, an earth oven, or pib, as the Mayans called it, was the choice method for cooking wild game, iguana, crocodile and the like. It certainly keeps people from sneaking bites before the meal is ready!

Knots had formed in my stomach as the ultimate task drew near. But first, Alfredo showed us how to prepare a large bowl with diced onion, garlic, habanero chile, salt and mint. This aromatic basin would receive the blood from the lamb during the sacrifice and become the foundation of our pancita, a traditional preparation of the organ meats cooked within the animal’s stomach (also referred to as machitos here in BCS).

The time had arrived. Alfredo brought the lamb into an abandoned chicken coop where a wooden pallet rested on the ground under a large shade tree. Still tied at the hooves, he laid her on her side. While he went to retrieve the basin and knife, he asked me to keep a hand on her so that she wouldn’t spook. I squatted by her head and stoked her neck. Her breathing slowed and she relaxed a bit. She was still calm when the knife cleanly entered her neck and pierced her heart. I would like to report that it is a fast process but it is not – it felt like an eternity. She slowly slipped away as the basin filled and we stirred the warm blood to prevent clotting. Then she was gone.

Alfredo was right, sacrifice adds a sanctity to the experience that heightened my desire to learn every step in the greatest possible detail. She had died so that I could learn. I owed her my full attention from skinning her hide to cleansing her meat, preparing her stomach and head, layering flavors, and applying smoky heat until she could be resurrected from the pit in full glory. She should be held on high, as she deserved, by dozens of grateful guests.

We lifted her by a rope to hang from the tree and Alfredo removed the hide in one perfect piece. If I had a place to properly clean and stretch it, I might have kept it. But, alas, her hide went into a small deep hole in the ground with the few parts that would not be eaten: hide, entrails, udder, hooves, esophagus, bile duct, etc. Her lungs, liver, heart and kidneys were placed in a silver bowl.

Nearly every step of the Barbacoa process benefits from multiple hands. It was evident how the communal process of the meal came to be a special ritual for families in which all participated.

With deft hands and years of experience, Alfredo skinned the thin hide from the lamb in just minutes.

We reserved the edible organs for our pancita/machitos.

As Alfredo excised the massive stomach from the lamb, we began the odiferous task of emptying the contents into the waste hole. We thoroughly rinsed the pale yellow, multi-chambered sac, taking special care to clean as much partially-digested food as possible from the terry cloth-like inner lining. Alfredo took exceptional care to grip the wet tissue, explaining that a drop into the dirt would be impossible to fully correct. Still, the disembodied organ in his hands still emitting a distinct funk, didn’t yet resemble anything one would willingly eat. But, where there is a will (and hungry mouths), there is a way.

Preparing the stomach to make pancita/machitos was the single most laborious task in the entire barbacoa process.

Alfredo placed the deflated organ into a bucket with a white slurry of “cal” (chalky white calcium oxide or lime). I waited to see what possible effect a product that I best knew from drawing the base lines on baseball diamonds, could have in de-funking a tummy.

While the stomach bathed in cal, Alfredo thoroughly scrubbed the leg quarters and ribs and placed the pieces into a separate bucket with water, salt, and fresh squeezed lime juice, saying that this process further cleans the meat and removes any foul smells.

Well cleaned quarters of the lamb.

The pieces were submerged for further cleansing.

He then began the tedious task of preparing the head. He explained that the entire first layer of membranes need to be removed from within the lamb’s mouth and tongue. To facilitate this process, the head was parboiled and then scraped, several times. The technique was painstaking and I wondered if it was worth the effort for the small amount of meat rendered from the head. (Spoiler alert: it is worth it.)

Parboiling helped to loosen the membranes for removal.

Painstakingly scraping the mouth and tongue.

Meanwhile, we began to dice up the organ meats, half to go into the stomach to make our pancita and the other half for the consommé. Rosa was busy chopping the ingredients for the large consomme pot: tomato, choyote, cilantro, green beans, carrot, garbanzo beans (previously soaked), and habanero chile.

Heart, lung, liver and kidneys were cleaned and diced.

The vegetable base of a rich consomme.

Checking back on the stomach, I found that indeed, the thick terry cloth lining had turned to mush and could be scraped away from the smooth stomach muscle. After an hour, it was clean and white.

After an hour, the stomach was transformed by col (lime), labor, and patience into a perfect casing.

The stomach was rinsed and than a little lime juice (this time the citrus sort) was added for additional freshening until it was ready to receive the diced organ meats that had been combined with the preserved blood and seasonings. I watched Alfredo dip his finger into the mixture to test the seasoning. I couldn’t imagine how seasoned, uncooked blood, lung and liver would taste so I followed suit, much to the amusement of Rosa. It tasted surprisingly clean, with only the slightest hint of iron. The mint seemed to have worked miracles.

The pancita/machitos ingredients await their transfer into the lamb’s stomach.

Rounding third base, after nearly 5 hours of work, Alfredo started the fire in the pit with some large pieces of wood, giving them plenty of time to become a mound of red hot coals.

Creating the coals.

While the fire raged, he fished the meat from the citrus bath and salted each piece liberally. Next came the critical rub: a loose paste of onion, garlic, and black pepper.

Finally, as the last of the large logs shattered into gray black chards in the bottom of the pit, a flurry of activity began to get the meal into the ground. First went in the consommé pot, directly on the coals. Above the pot, Alfredo placed a metal grate then a layer of banana leaves. Around the edges of the pit he inserted palm leaves. Then he carefully stacked the legs, head and ribs into the center of the leaves directly over the consommé pot – placing a dozen or so fresh avocado leaves among the pieces. In theory, as the meat slowly steam roasts, its juices will drip through the banana leaves into the soup. Lastly the pancita was carefully placed on top of the meat pile.

More banana leaves were piled on top before a corrugated steel cover was placed over the pit, topped with a large piece of cardboard, and buried in dirt. When the shoveling stopped and the dust cloud subsided, it was impossible to know that a culinary transubstantiation was taking place below ground.

And then we waited… for 6 hours.

At 7:00 pm, with a little more than an hour of day light remaining, we brushed the dirt aside and carefully resurrected perfectly cooked, heavenly-scented lamb dripping with juices. So tender, Alfredo struggled to gingerly lift the pieces before they fell to shreds into our awaiting cooler. Unable to contain our enthusiasm, one by one we plunged our fingers into the much too hot meat and reveled in the unctuous goodness while soothing our burning fingers in our mouths. The avocado leaves had permeated the lamb with a perfume that reminded me of tarragon and a hint of anise flavor. Bright white bones could be pulled from the mound, clean as a whistle. The tongue, about the size of a Snickers bar, rested in the lower jaw, goading me. It lifted effortlessly from the bone and became a ranking member on my “most succulent bites in life” list – without salsa, toppings or tortilla.

The last thing to emerge from the pit was the large pot of consommé, transformed into a dark pool. The brightly colored diced vegetable that had been afloat when interred, reemerged as soft conduits of rich, savory stock. Alfredo dipped a spoon into the dark broth for a sip. A quiet and very satisfied expression, “puta madre” escaped his lips. This colorful, but affirmative expletive was a very good sign.

Alfredo tests the consommé, pleased with his results.

As night fell, our guests began to arrive at “Dos Bajas”, the unique property of friend and gourmand, Wicho Poncho Lopez. We prepared an al fresco dining room beneath the lacy leaves of a tree. In true family style, we plunged fresh corn tortillas, still warm from the shop, into the steaming meat, pinching off a taco load and drizzling it with salsa. Guest after guest cocked their heads to the side to taste our day’s labor. The tacos were accompanied only by a tangy nopal salad studded with crumbles of cotija cheese and the consommé. Oh, the consommé, puta madre indeed! I would not be exaggerating to say that it was among the best I have ever had—more complex than the common cup of clear stock harboring a few drowned garbanzo beans. Ours was smoky with a complex flavor stolen from the vegetable menagerie, heated by habanero, and punctuated by the sweet and mineral essence of the offal. We ate to the point of “mal de puerco” (Mexican food coma), enjoying local microbrew from Baja Brewing and Mezcal los Siete Misterios late into the night.

More than 18 hours after arriving at the ranch to collect the star of our barbacoa lesson, I found myself in bed feeling weary but satisfied. Rather than count sheep to drift off to sleep, I gave thanks to just one short-haired, black ewe and I counted the many invaluable things she taught me that will remain with me always.