For a bearded fellow like myself the first step in preparing authentic birria de chivo is to swing by Quik Stop market and buy a package of disposable Bic shaving razors. Chivo is Spanish for goat, and birria is a traditional Mexican method of steaming meat over a chile broth. My mentors in the kitchen, Don Gerardo and Don Miguel, assured me the razors were essential. Having a smooth faced chef is not relevant to the success of birria feast; having four clean shaven goat feet is.
Since most super markets don’t sell goat meat, birria de chivo starts with catching a goat. While I make my living raising vegetables I keep a small flock of goats to control brush. It’s economical to eat the “fat of my own land”, and if I’m going to eat meat it only seems honest to slaughter the animal myself. This practice might be considered odd, or even blood thirsty, if you consider that meat is easiest to deal with when it comes pre-sliced and masked in plastic wrap, but a backyard slaughter wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Michoacan where Gerardo and Miguel come from.
Besides razors and a goat we needed a twenty gallon pot, and plenty of vinegar, garlic, onions, marjoram, oregano, cumin, ginger, laurel leaves, and black pepper. And chile, of course. Because we were preparing the meal for a mixed crowd of Americans and Mexicans an executive decision was made by Don Miguel to go with a mild ancho chile for the broth. It’s not true that all Mexicans want their food to be “muy picante” but, left to his own devices, Don Gerardo would definitely favor a chile powerful enough to bring a sweat to the brow.
I caught a four month old kid. At the risk of being tasteless, let me assure you that I killed and dressed the goat kid in less time, and with less squealing, than it used to take on a school day morning getting my daughter, Magdalena, to brush her hair and get dressed. She’s older now, so grooming comes easier, but my daughter still gets mad at me for butchering goats. I can understand. Lena says it’s sick to eat a goat that you know. My argument to her has been that we’re omnivorous animals, just like the cute Grizzly bears, and anyway the predators don’t lie down with the herbivores until the End Of Time. Farm animals are raised for slaughter. Without human care domestic animals have no existence. Without farm animals our world would lack beauty, flavor, and security. We justify the killing and honor the animal we slaughter by using all of it and not wasting a drop of life.
Under Don Miguel’s instruction I chopped the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys of the goat together for a dish called Montalayo, which is basically a Mexican take on haggis. When I’d achieved a texture somewhat cruder than hamburger I mixed the organ meat in a big bowl with chopped potato, onions, peas, and carrots. Miguel washed the stomach and scrubbed it with lime until it was snowy white, inside and out, and then stuffed with the offal-vegetable mixture. When he was done, Don Miguel tied the open end of the stomach tight with a cotton string to seal it closed, and set to one side. We split ancho peppers open and removed their seeds, then soaked them in hot water for a bit to soften. Garlic and onions were peeled. Black pepper corns were ground to powder in a molcajete, or stone grinding bowl.
We had a small pot of water heating. Don Gerardo plunged the goat feet in scalding water to loosen the hair. The tiny hairs that didn’t pluck off were shaved off with the Bics. You don’t want to skin the feet or there won’t be anything left. After a quick, scalding bath the horny sheaths of the hooves slipped easily off the toe bones. While we shaved the goat feet the chiles finished softening. Don Gerardo pureed the chiles in the blender with some vinegar, water, cumin, marjoram, ginger and salt. The garlic, onion, pepper, and oregano were tossed in the bottom of the big pot with three gallons of water, the chile puree and five bay leaves. Don Miguel dropped the cleaned feet in the chile broth. I skinned and dehorned the head and dropped it in the pot. The head and feet are essential ingredients because they give the broth “body”.
Then Don Miguel took out his machete and chopped the goat carcass into small cuts with a series of authoritative blows. We slipped a round grill top into the huge pot and perched it upon four teacups for a makeshift steamer. Meat was carefully layered above the broth with the stuffed gut placed in the middle. The pot was sealed with aluminum foil and put to boil. The hard work was over. We each opened a can of beer and sat down. Don Gerardo and Don Miguel talked as the pot bubbled and a savory steam began to rise into the air. I listened.
I learned that birria can be made from many kinds of meats but it’s not an everyday kind of dish. Celebrations call for birria. Here in the States birria is a restaurant fare. Don Miguel said one of his favorite birrias was birria de guacolote, or turkey, but he’d made some good birria de armadillo. It all depends on where you are and what your circumstances are. When Don Gerardo was a child corn was so scarce his mama had to make tortillas from the paste of ground up green bananas. It had been Gerardo’s job in those years to catch tlacuaches, or possums. Tlacuatche makes a good birria. Don Miguel said that mapache, or racoon, makes excellent birria too, but Don Gerardo said that mapache is better with mole sauce.
Listening to the two of them discuss birria made me understand how alive the cooking of Pre-Columbian America still is. The aluminum foil was a concession to modernity, as was the steel pot, but birria could easily prepared in an earthenware vessel. True, the goat, the vinegar, black pepper, cumin, ginger, carrots and peas in the montalayo came from Europe with the Spaniards, but all the other vegetables and spices came from the New World or could easily be replaced with native ingredients. I imagine that deer was a typical meat for birria before the introduction of the goat. Both goats and deer yield lean carcasses that present well with long, slow cooking techniques.
Hearing Gerardo and Miguel reminisce about the hard times back in Mexico made me think about how cooking birria is a celebration of traditional, conservative values. A modern “special occasion” might call for broiled chops on the grill, assigning the “lesser cuts” and organs of the animal an uncelebrated role ground up into hot dogs. Making the montalayo with the birria puts the “whole” in holistic and uses meats that cant be dried or easily preserved. Using all the bones in the broth is an economical, flavorful way of capturing all of the nutrition that the animal has to offer.
After four hours of gentle steaming the birria was ready. I lifted the lid on the pot with great curiosity. Would the flavor of the birria be worth the opprobrium I had earned from my daughter? The meat was served in bowls with the spicy broth poured over the top and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lemon. Warm corn tortillas were used to sop up the leftover liquid so not a drop was wasted. Cactus salad was a side dish. And of course we had beans.
The birria was great. The meat was tender and rich with chile and garlic. But the meal was also flavored with the experience of the toes to nose preparation. In that respect I’d have to say the birria had an ever deeper taste for me than for Gerardo and Miguel because they were already at home with how they eat. Maybe the birria had the strongest flavor for my seven year old daughter who didn’t eat a bite because she was getting a taste of reality. We’ll have another birria feast in the Fall when our crops are coming in, the goats are fat in the pasture, and we have reasons to celebrate. My daughter can become a vegetarian if she wants, but first she’s going to have to get over her distaste of vegetables.
A real jackass is a monument of asinine masculinity, and a testament to will, virility, and intelligence. A jenny is a female donkey. A stallion plus a jenny equals a mule. A jackass plus a mare equals a hinny. There are more mules in the world than there are hinnies because it’s easier to get a jack to breed a mare than it is to mate a stallion with a jenny. Why this should be so is a matter of conjecture. I figure that the inequality in numbers stems from performance anxiety on the part of the male horses, who, in the presence of equine ladies with such lovely long ears, such dulcet voices, such soulful eyes and such independent manners, simply feel inadequate. Hinny foals and mule foals come out the womb equal though, with 63 chromosomes apiece, and they’re all valued by their owners for the unique hybrid mix they have of a donkey’s good looks and endurance and a horse’s gullible nature and athletic temperament. I’m a donkey fancier, but over the Memorial Day weekend I went to the Bishop Mule Days Celebration on the eastern side of the Sierras to see what the fuss was all about.
The Mule Days Celebration is a week long event dedicated to the premise that anything a horse can do a mule can do better. As a kid I worked on a horse ranch mucking out stalls and feeding the horses. I got jaded by the self-important manner that some horse owners pass on to their steeds. I hoped that Mule Days might be a corrective experience, and I was right. For me, the visit started with a mule race. Five mules lined up on the starting line with their jockeys all dressed in silks of different colors. The mule with the jockey in yellow jumped the gun and had to reined back. Then she jumped the gun again. At a horse race a spirited animal like this would be disqualified for its enthusiasm but the judge at Mule Days had a donkey’s patience in his soul; he simply asked the jockey in yellow to turn his mule around so that the animal’s ass, not its nose, was on the starting line. Bang went the starting gun, and the mules shot off like bullets. The mule with the yellow silks had to spin around on her haunches before she could start the race, but she wanted victory so badly that she laid her big ears back and flew. When she won by a length everybody in the stands cheered.
Then there was a donkey race. It was invigorating to see the philosophic nature of the ass on display. The racing donkeys seemed all too aware that enjoyment of the journey of life comes from the trip, not from the finish line. Three of the five donkeys set off at the starting gun and scampered down the track with alacrity, but they didn’t obsess on the event the way a mule or horse would. A fourth donkey loped along casually and looked at the crowds of spectators with curiosity. And it is curious how thousands of donkeys never gather to watch five humans run in circles. Left to their own devices donkeys are happy to just savor mouthfuls of grass and feel the warm sun on their backs. The last donkey was the most thoughtful of all. She halted halfway down the track before turning and strolling back towards the starting line. Everybody smiled. What a generous donkey she was to make such an ass of her jockey. If the gambling industry wanted to inject an element of suspense into parimutuel racing they’ll open the racetracks to donkeys. It’ll never happen, though, because when it comes to a donkey race “all bets are off.”
I enjoyed the “donkey in hand” obstacle course too. This event was open to donkeys of all breeds and sizes, from the miniature Sicilian donkeys that stand no taller than dogs all the way up to Mammoth Donkeys whose ears can shade an average horse from the sun. Here the goal of every contestant was to lead their donkey over, through, into, and around a series of obstacles that challenged the animal to demonstrate its training and its faith in its owner. I appreciate the donkey obstacle course because I can see the time and energy that the donkey trainers have dedicated to their animals. I’m humbled when I compare the compliant behavior of the show animals with the saucy attitude that my donkeys display
when I try to make them do something that they didn’t think of. “Donkey in hand” obstacle shows will never make for good tv, because patience, trust and discipline are on display, not speed, flash, and violence. There was one made-for-tv moment though. A miniature donkey grew bored with the “keyhole” obstacle and left the arena suddenly to give a nuzzle kiss to another donkey on the other side of the corral fence, forcing the judge to announce over the public address system that “contestant 312 has lost her ass.”
My favorite event at Mule Days was the Pack Scramble. With the snowy crags of the Sierras crashing down to the desert floor to the west and the high peaks of the Whites looming over the Owens Valley from the east, Bishop is a natural spot for wilderness pack stations to show off the mules that can match the mountains. For the scramble contest wranglers from each Pack Station lead strings of fully loaded mules into the arena. Each animal is unloaded, and all the tack and gear removed. When every mule is nude a cannon is shot off, and for a minute the arena is a swirl of dust as sixty or seventy mules run around in chaos. Then the wranglers get busy. The first team to pack their mules and lead the train around the quarter mile racetrack without losing so much as a frying pan wins. My favorite packers were the Powder Puff Girls, an all-girl crew from the McGee Creek Pack Station, who dolled their mules up with packs and tack that sizzled in Breast Cancer Awareness Month Pink.
As I sat in the bleachers in the sun on Memorial Day, watching the beautiful mules and donkeys, the Civil War came to mind. When General Sherman marched through Georgia he promised the newly emancipated slaves forty acres of confiscated Confederate land apiece along with a government surplus mule. A mule used to be considered the optimum “horsepower” for farmwork. Forty acres was thought to be land enough for a hard working man to wrest a living from nature. The Federal Government soon reneged on its offer of reparations for slavery and returned the farmlands to
the plantation owners, so “forty acres and a mule” came to be understood as shorthand for broken promises. I thought about this longeared 19th century formula for emancipation and took measure of my own dependence on diesel fuel. Yes, I’m a self-employed farmer, but like almost everyone in America I live in thrall to Big Oil.
When I was seventeen I worked on a farm in Oregon with teams of Percheron horses. You better eat your Wheaties before you spend a day working with a draft team. Even the leather harness is hard work to put on the horses’ backs, and then there’s the strain of holding up the reins all day long and convincing the horses to pull. Now, at age forty eight years I’m developing a curiosity about the path I didn’t pursue. Do I have the stuff it takes to farm the way my grandfather did? Am I too old to learn? So I read and I seek out the company of people who can drive a team or lead a pack train. My farm buys me the freedom to take a day off now and then so next weekend I’ll attend the Coastal Oaks Miniature Donkey Show in King City. But at home I’ve got two tractors, four trucks, and two cars to fill with fuel. I’m ad-d-d-d-d-d-d-dicted to oil. I’d love to be freed from this karmic burden. Is emancipation possible? Who knows? But I’ve taken a half step I already own twenty acres and a donkey.
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Photos of Mule Days that Andy and Lena took