The Mexican goat roast began early in the morning with a shovel party. A shovel party did not (sadly) involve hitting anyone with a shovel. It involved a group of men standing around, taking turns digging a pit. Two feet wide, Three to four feet long for each goat being roast, about two feet deep. The men got started early, while the señoras built a bonfire. The men got an early start because everything went slowly and when they hit a rock every man took a turn to examine it before someone finally pried it from the ground and released the crew to continue their digging. The women got an early start because they needed to stop ever few minutes to chase down the errant pig or toddler. By eleven or so the pit was dug, the fire was burning, and the goats were tied to the fence near the pit, praying for rain.
Rain would put out the fire. Rain would prevent the coal bed from forming, a coal bed of wood and ash that the men shoveled into the pit, lining it like an Indian fire walk until a wall of smoke rose from the pit. There was no rain to spare the goats that day, so one by one the men untied the goats while the señoras rebuilt the fire with fresh wood. Then the village butcher lead the goats to the fire pit one at a time. These were young goats, males, cursed by their sex to be unable to give milk (or more goats). All we needed now was the knife.
The knife was held by the wife of the butcher. She was at home, so I headed off to her house to fetch it. She was rocking in a rocking chair, a cloth covered basket in her lap, talking with her sister when I arrived. "I need the knife," I said. She stared back at me blankly. I raised my finger to my throat, making a slicing motion and she laughed. One hand reached into the basket and pulled out a chicken. Before it could struggle she swung it like a bolo and ripped the head off. The head she tossed out the window for the pigs to eat. The chicken went in a pot and she handed me a long, wide leather sheath.
Back at the roast site the butcher took the blade and pulled it out. A long, curved sickle, sharpened on the inside edge. The handle was hand carved and an obvious replacement, the blade well oiled but worn thin from years of sharpening. Grabbing the goat by the chin the butcher deftly whipped the blade around it, slicing from one shoulder clean across the neck and to the other. The goat stiffened and wet squealing noises came from the flap on its throat. The blood didn't spurt though - it just ran like water down the goats legs and pooled in the dirt. Slowly, almost gently the goat collapsed, and before it could even stop breathing the butcher was on it. Lifting the hind leg he traced a path from its anus to the chest with the blade. A flick of the wrist really, as one does with a laser pointer. See, from here - to here... and he grabbed the goat by the back. With a grunt he pulled it upright, and its intestines slipped out, landing in the dirt. With a tug on both ends he pulled the intestines loose and handed them to a young girl. His attention was back on the goat. Putting his foot on the hind leg, he ripped it upward, crunching the bone. The leg now lay limply against the goat and the process was repeated for the other hind leg.
Now the goat was ready to go into the fire. With legs folded beside it, the men lowered the goat into the fire pit. The fire sizzled and smoked as wet goat landed on it. And it was time for the next goat. And the next. Now the men were helping hold the goat up once the throat was sliced, and the butcher was free to slice open the stomach right after the throat. On some of the goats the butcher carved upward and cut out the lungs, liver and heart. Like the intestines these were handed to the children to take to their mothers. Off by the house I watched a girl squeeze the intestine from one end to another, then take it to clean at the stream.
With all the goats laid in the pit the men now took shovels to the fire and shoveled wood and coals onto the goats, the last of which was still blinking. When the wood and fire was packed the sod was laid on top of the fire pit again, making a earthen oven. The goat heads stuck up above the ground, so it looked like someone had planted goats and they were just coming up. And then we waited. For hours the meat simmered below ground, a constant cloud of grey smoke rising. The goats who had their organs cut out steamed through the mouth as their insides cooked, looking like fire breathing demons were rising from the earth.
While the meat was cooking the women cooked chickens, mashed pinto beans, and patted tortillas from the coarse blue corn. The women took fat and mashed it with peppers to make a spicy sauce hotter than the hottest jalapeno and ground nuts to make a sugar and nut dessert that was cooked in a pan above the fire, sugar turning to caramel around the nut paste. And the meal was ready. When the sod was pulled back the fires had burned down. The meat pulled away from the skin and bone as they shoveled out the goats. Roast goat tastes like roast beef, only with a wild gamy taste to it, and the smoky scent of the ash clinging to the skin. I ripped a chunk from the hind leg and sat, savoring the pungent scent and taste. This must be what it was like for our ancestors, though I doubt they dug out pits the size of garbage trucks to roast mammoths.
Normally everyone goes to bed at sundown. No electricity, no light means no reason not to. This night though we stayed long after the sun sank away. Jose brought a tallow candle and the men played dominos around it. The women talked in the darkness. The butcher was busy as well, carving the last scraps of meat from the goat heads and throwing the rest to the pigs. The next morning four new goat skulls decorated the fence posts on the way out of town. Far from being a gruesome warning, these skulls remember the weddings, the funerals, gatherings and celebrations. They are a sign that life in the village goes on. They stretch on down the road for as long as memory serves.
Thanks to Mybostinks - the meal is called Cabrito though these goats were not splayed for cooking nor "small" as the suffix suggests.