A South Texas Classic Tale from June 29, 2011.
It doesn’t get more real than this.
I sat in my grandfather’s truck, staring down at the coiled ropes that always seemed to be underfoot. Grandfather had woken me early so I could go help him slaughter some goats at el ranchito, “A matar unos chivos,” as he put it. Most 12-year-old boys in Premont would not be spending Saturday morning holding on to a dead goat’s leg while the carcass got skinned, but I didn’t mind, especially today. I was going to make some money to fix up the bicycle that my grandfather had bought for me from a junk dealer who had set up in the parking lot of the cattle auction.
Although the sun had not come up, birds were already making sounds. I enjoyed the chirping and cooing, and recently I often got the chance to get the early version of the serenade because my mom and grandmother felt I should go with my elderly grandfather every time he went out to el ranchito. It was a 30-acre pasture he leased on the edge of town next to the Anglo cemetery. Not only did the women want someone with him because he had a bad heart, but the lifting, pulling and hauling involved in slaughtering, which grandfather did at least once a week, had gotten to be more than he could do alone. I waited in the old truck, a ½-ton Chevy my grandfather had bought used from the Central Power and Light people. I listened to the birds and took in the smell of earth, goats and cattle feed all coming up from the floorboards of my grandfather’s truck. Then I heard the screen door slam.
“Ten, hijo.” My grandfather said as he walked up to my side of the truck and handed me a clean peanut butter jar with some white stuff in the bottom of it. I shook the jar with the white stuff knowing it was salt. He told me to stick the jar in the middle of the rope heap so that it wouldn’t roll around. He walked over to his side, opened the door and set a metal pan down on the seat next to me. In the pan were several knives and sharpening steel, tools of my grandfather’s trade. He slid into the seat, started the truck and headed into the morning.
In Premont, Ysidro Recio, my grandfather, was a matanzero from the 1940s into the 60s. He worked with several small, local slaughterhouses, but when he worked alone he had a makeshift matanza under an old mesquite tree at el ranchito. No fancy freezers here, just fresh protein he provided to willing customers. Even with the modern meat markets available in town, many folks around Premont still brought their stock for slaughter and butchering to my grandfather.
Today we were slaughtering three goats and one kid, a special cabrito. Grandfather had bought a load of goats at the stock auction in Alice earlier that week. That same day he had bought from the junk dealer in the auction parking lot what was to be my first two-wheel bike, a fat-tire black and white 26-inch clunker which arrived at our house strapped to the sideboards of the truck. This bike, unfortunately, needed some repairs and a new tire.
My grandfather’s plan was to fatten the goats for as long as it took to find buyers, either for live goats or for goat meat ready for cooking. My plan was to help him with the feeding and slaughtering, giving me a chance to earn some bike money.
The meat from the three goats was destined for a political gathering where potential voters had been promised a plate of chivo guisado, stewed goat, and beans. The kid, el cabrito, was for our table. We had company from Mexico, and my grandmother wanted to serve cabrito en sangre, a popular dish from her native Nuevo Leon. The recipe is similar to the standard guisado or stew method of cooking meat in tomato-based gravy, but this gravy is also thickened with fresh blood. The appeal of cabrito comes from very young, milk-fed goat, slaughtered before the meat has taken on the familiar goaty smell.
Cabrito en sangre had always been a special dish, or so my grandmother had explained. Though she was probably referring to some exotic culinary detail of taste, what made it special to me was that instead of spilling the blood of the slaughtered animal, we took special care with it. The clean peanut butter jar became a vessel to contain the blood of the life we were taking, preserving that blood to create a meal. I watched as the sharp, pointed knife pierced the neck through the jugular and came out the bottom side, where I had been told to hold the jar with the salt. At first the blood merely trickled off the tip of the knife, but as the kid struggled, the trickle became a gush.
I remember the blood filling the jar pretty much to the top. My grandfather told me to stir the salt in well, so the blood wouldn’t coagulate.
The slaughter of the other three goats continued without a hitch. I knew my job, which was mostly hauling water for cleaning, and holding the carcass in position for skinning and gutting. The grisly chore was made bearable by the thought of how much money I would make today. Grandfather never just gave me cash; today he would give me the offal to sell. The heart, lungs and liver, in Spanish called the asadura, plus other organ meats used by the local ladies to make machitos, a small minced-meat sausage loaf wrapped in a sheet of suet, then bound with small intestines, tripitas. It was capitalism at its best! The ladies maintained a cultural tradition, my grandfather got help, and I made a little cash. By the end of the day I would have the tire I needed for my new bike, plus the batteries I wanted for the headlight hanging from the handlebars.
Eager to finish our work, we loaded the goat carcasses in clean cardboard boxes. I loaded the bags containing the machito fixings, the pan with the knives, and the goat hides into the bed of the truck. I hand-carried the jar of blood as my grandfather drove us back into town.
When we arrived, I delivered the jar of blood to my grandmother, and then helped unload the boxes of goat into the screened porch at the back of our house. I picked up the packages with the goat offal and headed toward the alley. My best customers were all within an easy walk. If I hurried I could come back home, shower and make it to the hardware store for my tire and batteries. My grandfather was already salting down the goat hides, to preserve them until we took them to sell to the hide buyers in Laredo.
I was almost to the alley when my grandmother called out from the back door.
“Go by the store on your way back, and pick up a package of corn tortillas for the cabrito en sangre!”
Author: Joe Perez
A former drafting and English teacher, Joe Perez works as a technical writer. Self-taught musicians, Joe and Rosa Perez perform as a vocal and guitar duet they have named “Rumbo al’ Anacua”. In a rustic style that speaks of a “voces y guitarras” heritage as it has been preserved among people living north of the Rio Grande, the spirit of Rumbo al’ Anacua keeps the tradition of music performed under backyard anacua trees throughout South Texas.