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.