by Jeff O’Brien
It was a night years in the making and days in the preparing. My wife and I had just married and my father-in-law threw what I can only call a feast for the ages. Food and drink enough for an army.
In preparation, my suegro (father-in-law) had spent the day driving around with his newly minted gringo son-in-law. We had picked up long tables and chairs, gone on refresco runs and scouted cerveza bien muerto (cold as death). Several kilos of tortillas were purchased fresh, and my suegro picked up dozens of tamales. Homemade salsa was prepared, slowly simmered in Tecate. Meat had been picked up earlier by my visiting parents.
Tables and chairs filled the small courtyard in front of my wife’s family home in North Central Mexico. We pulled the iron gate aside and took over the sidewalk in front of the house. Monterrey and its mountains loomed in the distance and behind us in ‘the backyard’, the amazing canyons of La Huasteca, which not long before had sent torrents of water into the city during Hurricane Alex.
The final run was the continuation of one started the day before. Northern Mexico is beef country, and Mexicans have a word for the beef at such a feast–barbacoa. We had helped prepare huge cuts of meat, including the tongue, that were buried in a pit to be slowly cooked. The cuts were wrapped in maguey and buried with special rocks to keep the heat in as the meat cooked overnight.
Guests showed up by the half dozen and then by the dozen, and my father-in-law settled in to cook, the maestro in his outdoor cocina cooking chorizo, whole chickens, and stacks of thin-cut T-bone steaks.
My fathe-in-law did all his cooking on the ‘coffin,’ a large BBQ. Mesquite and carbon created a fire with very hot coals. On top he cooked the T bones and chorizo to traditional Mexican wellness. Tortillas were cooked crisp and just burnt enough around the edges to bring out the flavor of the corn flour. Inside the oven were the ‘raped chickens,’ whole chickens that had been marinating in oranges and limes and then perched on half full beer cans up their behind and slow cooked.
Later in the evening a container showed up. Several of my new cousins gathered around in anticipation as it was opened. What was it? A wedding gift? Not in the traditional sense. It was the head of the cow, slow cooked. We all lined up, as one of my new cousins picked the meat off and filled taco after taco. I was at the head of the line and I’m pretty certain there were running bets as to whether the gringo in the family would eat this rather unusual meat or not. I did and it was the most tender meat I have ever had.
As it was a potluck of sorts, the table was laid out with other. The most unique dish was ‘Huitlacoche‘ or Aztec corn fungus. It can be eaten on its own or used to flavor tamales, soups, quesadillas and other very Mexican dishes. I had thought the roast crickets I’d eaten earlier in the market were the most unique thing I would eat during my stay. Could not have been more wrong. I was determined not to be the gringo who got squeamish around something that might be a little TOO Mexican. I would not refuse to try something new and I would not refuse what I was given, whether seconds or thirds. Huitlacoche is unique, to say the least. It has an earthy taste like a mushroom, slightly slimy texture, and is similar in appearance to smoked oysters. Definitely an acquired taste!
We ate and drank to the accompaniment of Mexican music, mostly norteño. Although it was a Wednesday night and getting late, no neighbors complained. How could they? Most had been invited! Later in the evening tired children were carried to waiting cars and warm abrazos were exchanged among departing guests. The cow skull stood by the street. Picked absolutely clean, it had given its all for us. Some thanked it as they walked past.
The last guest departed and I shut the gate. I paused to look at six cats in a skinny tree by the side of the road. The eyed the bags that I had put into the trash across the street. It was their turn for a feast.