NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

A little bit of Mexico on Monterey Bay
An “end-of-the-season” party brings some regional Mexican rivalry to Mariquita Farm. Workers from Michoacan and Oaxaca have a friendly argument over the best way to barbecue a goat.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

October 14 , 2004: One of the perks to working on my farm weighs about 60 pounds and smells like a goat. Actually, this perquisite is a goat. If you work for us and you want to celebrate a birthday, a baptism, or just have a party and you want to cook a goat, I’ll give you one from the little herd I keep to clear brush. This “perk” may not appeal to everyone, but it fits the pace and personality of our farm.

Half the folks who work for us come from rural Michoacan and the others lived in the mountains of Oaxaca before they came here. Keeping goats was part of everybody’s life back home in Mexico and, stuffed as they are into little apartments in town, it’s a part of their former life they miss.

When I need assistance catching a goat, I always have eager helpers from the crew. Besides being sure of hand and careful not to get horned in the eye, they usually have good anecdotes about their own experiences on their own ranches back in Mexico. For them, nothing feels as comfortably down home as taking the time (say, two days) to cook a traditional meal correctly from scratch and enjoy it with friends around the fire.

The end of October and the beginning of November marks the beginning of the rainy season here. Another perk to working on our farm is that we work all year long. Work in the winter may be interrupted by weather, but we do not shut down as so many other farms here do. Our crew is not migrant. A couple of the older fellows always return to Mexico for the winter, though, to reunite with families they’ve left behind, but most of our workers stay here.

An end-of-season party is in order even when the season isn’t actually ending. Don Gerardo and Don Israel want to lift a glass to another year completed in El Norte before they head south. Sunny Mexico is on everyone else’s mind, too, as they get ready for another Gringo winter with mud, foggy weather and short days. An outdoor Mexican feast is in order. The only issue is whether the goat, or chivo in Mexican Spanish, is to be prepared in a birria or as a barbacoa.

Birria is a dish where meat is slowly steamed over a chili broth. Any kind of meat can be cooked in this manner but the long cooking process favors lean meats like goat or turkey. Barbacoa is a method of baking meat in a pit dug into the earth. This year we will have a birria feed, and I will take copious notes on the entire process. My dream is to someday be able to cook a birria that even our crew would agree tastes authentic. One year we cooked a goat barbacoa-style, and I’m still smiling over that dinner.

My dream is to someday be able to cook a birria that even our crew would agree tastes authentic.

There was a disagreement among the crew as to how to cook the barbacoa. The fellows who came from deserts in the north of Mexico said that the best method was to dig a hole in moist earth and build a fire at the bottom with mesquite. When the coals were burned down it was important to take 12 long pencas, or leaves, of maguey and shove them, overlapping, into the earth around the coals. (Maguey is a kind of agave with succulent leaves and a sharp thorn on the tip.) Then, as the heat of the coals wilted the maguey, we would fold the pencas over, one by one, in a basket weave over the top of the coals. A second ring of pencas would then be stabbed in the ground behind the first row. As these leaves wilted they would be folded over too, but not before the meat had been slipped in underneath them to cook. Earth would be heaped on top to seal in the heat. Protected in its nest of agave leaves, the meat would steam away for hours before carefully being dug from the pit.

The southerners had a different idea. They said barbacoa is best when the meat is carefully wrapped up in banana leaves. Banana leaves impart a superior, more traditional flavor to the barbacoa and the only reason anyone would ever settle for agave is if they were unfortunate enough to have been born in the desert. As the Patron and goat donor I was called upon to mediate the dispute.

My concern was twofold. I wanted everyone to enjoy the meal, and I didn’t know where to get either maguey or banana leaves. It was pointed out that the Philipino family that lives down the road had a banana tree in their yard and we could “borrow” some leaves. Someone else knew where there was a century plant by the side of the road. We slaughtered the goat. That work kept us busy until well after sundown. I made my Solomonic decision. We would all decide by consensus, “mañana”, which way to prepare the chivo, a la nortena o a la surena.

Morning dawned white with the season’s first hard frost. My unsuspecting neighbor’s banana tree had its leaves burnt brown by the cold and they hung limp in dejected tatters. Agave it would be by an act of God. Instead of mesquite, we used oak from the canyon below my house. We picked oregano from the field and gathered garlic, onions, and chilies from the shed. Salad was sliced off a prickly pear cactus in the yard. (The young paddles are tender and taste like green beans after they’ve been par boiled, drained, salted, and dressed with a vinaigrette.) And there were beans, of course. The tortillas were heated on a makeshift comal. (Here’s a recipe for success; The steel used to fabricate the round disks for disk harrows is extremely high quality. When the disks get old and worn we replace them, but we never throw the old ones away; they are simply too perfect for heating tortillas over a campfire.)

This time, Don Gerardo is going to take the lead in preparing the birria de chivo. I will cook the beans in my big cauldron over an outdoor fire. When the party is over, Don Gerardo and Don Israel will go to Mexico. Everybody else will return to work on Monday; standing in a circle with friends around the fire with bellies full of birria is as close to Mexico as they’re going to get this year.

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