Esaul Ramos is doing prep work for his Sunday barbacoa, as he does every first Saturday of the month. There are 26 hours before the meat will be sold, but still, the time frame is tight.
The foundation of this particular barbacoa is beef cheeks, which must be smoked for a couple of hours before they are wrapped in banana leaves, then in aluminum foil, then put in large pots, and finally cooked for 16 hours by the low heat of the smoker. Tomorrow, by 11:30 a.m., it will all be sold out thanks to preorders and of course the dozens of San Antonio locals who form an early line outside 2M Smokehouse, the barbecue joint that pitmaster Ramos and his friend Joe Melig opened in December 2016, in a lot they found on Craigslist (which had previously housed a Mexican restaurant). The barbecue joint that, as one reviewer wrote for the San Antonio Current, has bumped the city “into the will-wait-for-food world for better or for worse.”
But that’s gonna be tomorrow, after you and I have gone well into barbacoa territory.
Barbacoa is a thing of shifting nature. It does not want to be defined. We say the word barbacoa, and we mean many things. I do not come to the pages of Bon Appétit to repeat that it is a method that was brought here from an island in the Caribbean 500 years ago.
First, because I am sure you already know that. Second, because it does not even matter: Colonizing sapiens would have arrived at this method by some other route anyway. Also, barbacoa wasn’t brought here. It moved, if you will, for barbacoa’s voice is not passive. Its domains grew, and it has continued to change, to evolve. Barbacoa’s method, a hell-hot underground pit, covered with earth or bricks, sealed like a primordial pressure cooker, now seems as natural to the evolution of human intelligence as the learning of sowing and harvesting.
El Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano en Forma de Diccionario, a handsome dictionary that some in Mexico use for dating and antedating dishes and recipes, was published in 1888. (At least the one I have at home was. I found it at an old bookshop near the zocalo in Mexico City’s center. The owner sold it to me for like $20. Poor bastard never knew what he had on his shelves. Or, my volume is a fake, and I, poor bastard, don’t know what I have on my shelves. This is probably the case.)
El Nuevo Cocinero’s editors sing the praises of barbacoa. “Of all the ways men have invented to cook meats, none can compare to that of barbacoa, for without adding liquids whatsoever, which might make those meats lose part of their substance, and of their flavor; and without them coming in contact with fire, which might rob those meats of their juices; with only the steam coming from the heated earth; and preserving all their nutritious qualities; these meats are so well cooked, so toothsome, as to be exciting to the appetite and easy to digest, even for the weakest of stomachs, all at the same time.” El Nuevo Cocinero then proceeds to list several barbacoas.
There is one barbacoa Mexicana, which is the most basic, therefore the most comprehensive of all. You will recognize it; it almost encompasses the other six. There is a hole, stones, and a big fire built in that hole. The fire will die, and the stones will be quite hot. “You will leave the stones there; and put wet palm leaves over them; then the meat,” which has been prepared with some sort of adobo and wrapped in maguey or other leaves. “You will cover this with earth and enough fire. Eight or ten hours later, the meat will be well cooked.”