Beginning in mid-October, and lasting for a month, a five-hundred-year-old ritual encompassing history, tradition and cuisine takes place in the valley of Tehuacan, in the Mixteca Poblana region of southern Puebla.
Traveling through this rocky, hardscrabble land, one wonders how the inhabitants have sustained themselves for thousands of years and marvels at the fact that this part of Mexico is the place where corn was first cultivated from a wild grain that grew in the valleys between steep, cactus-strewn mountainsides. For these hardy agricultural people, the Mexican culinary triumvirate of corn, beans and squash made up the basis of their diet for centuries. Not until the arrival of the Spaniards were bovine and wool-bearing animals introduced, and one look at this rugged countryside is enough to realize that one of the few capable of surviving here is the goat.
The annual twenty-day long event known as La Matanza – the killing of the goats – is not only the culmination of a year of hard work but an event that sums up much of the region’s history and gastronomy. October’s matanza has been called a manifestation of Mixteca folklore syncretized in religious observance, cuisine and dance. Today it is a civic as well as a ritual occasion, with municipal officials, reporters, and thousands of visitors flocking to Tehuacan to eat the famous mole de caderas, a stew made with the meaty hind quarters of the goat and flavored with local seasonal ingredients such as costeño chiles, avocado leaves and guajes, pods born of the tree of the same name (and for which the southern state of Oaxaca, bordering on the Mixteca Poblana, was named.) However, hundreds of years before becoming an event that attracts gourmets and tourists from many parts of Mexico, La Matanza was crucial to the region’s economy.
After the Spanish conquest, a system known as the encomienda was established in Mexico, with the objective of repartitioning the indigenous land and its inhabitants. The new “owner,” or encomendero, had to provide religious instruction in exchange for work that was assigned to the inhabitants. In the case of the Mixteca region, the instructors were Dominican friars and the work assigned to the people was the raising of goats to clear the land.
So successful were they in their new occupation that by the end of the 16th century the Mixtecas were able to pay for religious festivals and buy European products from Spanish merchants in exchange for the derivative products of the goat slaughter: coarse wool for clothing, tallow for candles, and skins for leather goods.
The cebadores – “fatteners”- and matanceros – slaughterers – became central figures in the local economy. The arrieros, or herders, led the animals to the coast during the dry season and back to the Mixteca when the rainy season made grass plentiful, a route still followed today by the descendents of those herders. (The family of Don Iñigo Garcia of Tehuacan has been carrying on the tradition of raising goats according to the strictest nutritional and gastronomic standards for more than two hundred years.)
In the mid-1700s, to give thanks for the bounty provided by the goats, these people began to gather for a ritual sacrifice of the animals. The first to be slaughtered was adorned with flowers, and a prayer was offered as the matancero began his work, accompanied by song, dance, incense and lapo, a regional alcoholic beverage.
Nowadays, the Matanza is a much more public occasion, with the participation of dancers carrying flor de muertos and baskets of a local bread called pan de burro because it was transported by burros in times past. As the tourists and “foodies” begin to descend upon Tehuacan’s restaurants, the ex-haciendas where the slaughter takes place become the centers of activity for the makers of chito – goat meat jerky – as well as for buyers of hides for shoe factories in Leon and makers of buttons and knife handles carved from bone.
During this time, many of the region’s culinary specialties, in addition to mole de caderas, are showcased in markets and restaurants. The corn produced during the just-ended rainy season goes into a thick corn and meat stew called elopozole. The famous garlic of San Gabriel Chilac is the basis for sopa de ajos, or garlic soup, and the region’s abundant amaranth crop is promoted in a kiosk in Tehuacan’s main plaza, where leaflets containing recipes using amaranth are distributed. The red beans peculiar to this area are used to make the dish called frijol de arriero – herder’s beans (sometimes translated as mule driver’s beans) – perhaps named in honor of the goat herders. Plums and zapotes are made into fruit desserts, and pineapples are featured in both volteado – similar to upside-down cake – and tepache, a fermented beverage that adds to the festive atmosphere.
The Matanza ceases for the last day in October and first of November in order to observe Day of the Dead, when the Mixteca home altars will hold flowers, candles, bread, beverages, and bowls of – what else? – mole de caderas.
The following recipes from Tehuacan and nearby towns in the Mixteca region reflect a style of cooking that makes creative use of every ingredient nature has to offer, each one considered a blessing in this spare, and at times harsh, environment. Perhaps the recipe for mole de caderas will inspire some to visit Tehuacan and try one of the most exquisite regional specialties in Mexico.
- Goat and vegetable mole: Mole de caderas
- Garlic soup from San Gabriel Chilac: Sopa de ajo de San Gabriel Chilac
- Fresh corn pozole from southern Puebla: Elopozole de Tierra Caliente