by Janet Lagerloef
Owner, The Catering Gourmets, Sugar Grove
In the ‘80s, my husband Jerry, son and I moved from Sugar Grove to Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville is about as far south as you can get in Texas while still keeping your toes in the U.S.—it is only a couple of miles from Matamoros, Mexico. Jerry had just graduated from college with an aviation degree, and he sent his resume to several small airports in the country hoping to land a flying job. Alta Vista Aviation in Brownsville contacted him, so south, south, south we went.
We found ourselves in a different world. All the kids in Ryan’s first-grade class were Hispanic. His little towhead really stood out in school, and I could easily spot him on a baseball field or when he played with kids in the neighborhood. Nearly everyone spoke Spanish, but the majority of folks in Brownsville also spoke English, which they graciously did when we were around.
We only stayed in Brownsville for seven years, but those seven years I will never forget, especially from a food standpoint.
I had quite an experience the first time I went into Jimmy Pace’s Grocery Store on Boca Chica Boulevard, a block from where we lived. The produce department was what I was used to, except I was fascinated by the edible cactus and row after row of every imaginable size, shape and color of pepper. But as I turned left into the meat department, I jumped and let out a small gasp—lined up in the meat case were heads of cow. Cow heads. About six of them. I didn’t see that coming.
As we soon learned, a south Texas tradition is to eat barbacoa on Sundays after church. Families start slow cooking a cow’s head on Saturday evening and shred, chop and mix together the cheek, brains, tongue and eyeballs in the morning. When they get home from church, they serve it in warm, handmade flour tortillas with the most lovely fresh salsas.
Many busy moms also bought barbacoa on Sunday mornings from Jimmy Pace’s Grocery Store, and most said it was as good as homemade. After living in Brownsville for about six months, we decided to try it. At the store, Jimmy asked us if we wanted the brains, tongue and eyes mixed in with the cheek (the cheek is the main part of barbacoa) or separately.
“Mix it in,” Jerry said.
“Keep it separate,” I said.
Ryan went pale. We kept it separate. We also bought flour tortillas. Most moms in our neighborhood made their own tortillas, but I wasn’t having any success there.
Well, a warm flour tortilla (even store bought) stuffed with that cheek meat was extraordinary. It was like the tastiest, most tender pot roast in the whole world. The tongue, which was cut up in small pieces, was also very tender, and Jerry and I liked it. Only Jerry was brave enough to eat the eyeballs. He said they were chewy. The brain was okay—I had a few small nibbles, but Jerry liked it. My little towhead hid behind the couch.
We bought barbacoa on many Sundays after that, and even Ryan grew to like the cheek. We also enjoyed cabrito (goat) and seafood cocktails made of squid, shrimp and octopus. One food Ryan and I didn’t conquer was menudo—cow stomach soup. It was a customary dish on New Year’s Eve. However, Jerry liked it with lots of onions and cilantro. We also ate the finest beef fajitas, chicken flautas and chili rellenos, all of which I learned to make and still make today.
Shortly before we left Brownsville to move back to Sugar Grove, I decided to make barbacoa. I walked up to Jimmy Pace’s meat counter, picked out a cow head and put it in my cart. The head and I roamed around the store a bit because I really wanted someone I knew to see us together. On my way home, I felt oddly un-alone in the car.
I originally planned to share my chicken flautas recipe with you this month, but I couldn’t resist offering my Brownsville Barbacoa recipe first.