So, where does the word ‘barbecue’ come from?
The word comes from barbacoa, a Spanish word, and it is traced to Caribbean and Haitian peoples. Traditional barbacoa consists of large cuts of meat cooked over a hole in the ground. Mexican barbacoa includes goat meat or lamb. In the U.S., barbacoa uses beef, especially heads of cattle where the prized cheek meat is and every bit of the head is used. Try this recipe for Smoked Cow Head Barbacoa from Home Sick Texan where she takes a whole head of beef and barbecues it for 24 hours before savoring every bit of it, from the tongue to the eyes.
This description of Mexican barbacoa comes from Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking from 1958:
The Mexican barbacoa has one touch of its very own…Mexicans use the big fleshy leaves of the maguey plant. First a hole is dug – usually one about four feet deep. The sides of this are plastered with mud. In the hole go light porous stones, topped with a fire. When the wood has become ashes, the maguey leaves are roasted until tender and used to line the sides of the hole; their tops are laid back over the surface of the ground. A grate is then pout over the ashes, and on top of it a pot with stock and garbanzos, rice, vegetables, and of course, chiles. Next comes the meat – lamb or kid, mutton or beef. The soft maguey leaves that are on the ground are folded over, a sheet of wood or metal is added, then another layer of mud. On top of this imposing heap a fire is built and kept burning for about five hours.
Barbacoa now refers to any large cut of meat (beef, lamb, goat, etc.) that is slow cooked and well seasoned. The barbacoa tacos use fresh corn tortillas with onions, cilantro, and lime, and served with guacamole and salsa.