There are times when it’s hard to discern where something begins and something ends. So it is with Hog Island Carne de Cordero Barbacoa. Still, every story has its start, for example, when David came over to paint the window frames our friend Robert had just crafted and set in the old brick walls of our house. The workmanship was beautiful and the installation was in its closing stages. The draughty winter days when frigid winds hissed through crevices in the rotten sills were banished. A sweltering August afternoon, thunder moaning on the horizon, and I was thinking of glittering ice crystals drifted on the beach in January and how snug we would be. “Hola,” David, sweat trailing on his temples, greeted me. He knows that other than food nouns and some necessary conjunctions he’s exhausted my Spanish vocabulary. I keep thinking to myself that I really need to learn Spanish. Still, I always try to make good use of those food nouns. Segueing to English, David asked, “How is your daughter? She is a hero in our family.”
Our daughter’s heroic stature arises from the fact that she located David detained in the truly labyrinthine depths of the U. S. immigration system. It seems that David, who has lived on the Eastern Shore for a good many years and learned the building trades from Robert, was driving with an expired inspection sticker. A county deputy pulled him over, found his papers not in order, and hauled him in. Federal jurisdiction took over and David was shipped to a detention facility somewhere in Pennsylvania. His wife, pregnant with twins, could not find him and turned to Robert, a soul defined by an extraordinary generosity of spirit, who turned to our daughter, a law student at the time, to locate and help in securing David’s release. She accomplished her tasks in short order and David and his family now reside secure in our community. This makes our daughter, as Robert says, a “folk hero” in our corner of the world and in the hearts of David, his family, and friends. “Hola,” I replied, “She’s doing great, working now as a public defender across the Bay.” “Remember us to her,” he answered, “she is family.” David paused, “You are family. We are having barbacoa on Sunday. You and your family must come.”
Now, barbacoa happens to be in my Spanish lexicon: “What kind?” David hesitated, looking for the word, “Sheep!” “Sheep! You mean like a grown-up sheep, like mutton?” “Si; yes, sheep, cordero.” Yow and double yikes! Carne de cordero is something I don’t come across too often and here stood David inviting us to a Guatemalan cordero barbacoa. “Where?” I asked. “At my sister’s house. You know, Maiana, I think.” Oh yes I do! (Maiana is my preferred source for homemade tamales and sweet potato empanadas. I’ve stood at her side in her kitchen and maveled as she wrapped the seasoned pollo or puerco in the masa harina laid on softened cornhusks and then stuffed the hundred or so I ordered into a steamer the size of a Florida sinkhole. What we don’t eat on arrival gets stockpiled in the freezer for culinary emergencies to which I seem unusually prone.) “I’ll be there,” abandoning any pretense to polite refusal, “but my family cannot come with me.” “You come,” David concluded, “you are family.” And, I went.
The barbacoa apparently began the night before when the cooks killed and butchered the sheep, dressing the meat behind the house. When I arrived, the only non-Spanish speaker on the premises, David greeted me along with his niece Jessica and sister Maiana. I was, as David reminded me “family,” introduced as such, and quickly absorbed into the manic chaos of overheated children racing around on a summer Sunday afternoon, the calm of older folks chatting in the shade, and the focussed energy of women cooking in the kitchen and the yard behind the house. A twenty-gallon pot of mutton-based sopa filled with vegetables bubbled adjacent to the picnic table that served for staging and serving. Out in the yard, another pot gurgled on a homemade grill of concrete block and old scorched metal over a wood fire stoked with chunks of scrap and windfalls. Jessica came over, offered to let me take a peek, and lifted the lid. “A taste?” “Oh, yes, please.” Wonderful! “Gracias.” “De nada, it is nothing.” Not where I come from.
Jessica then provided a tour of Maiana’s garden. David and Maiana come from Guatemala and Maiana takes great pains to keep her family’s culinary identity alive and vibrant. An arbor of chayote shaded the smallest children playing on the grass. Epazote flourished next to the hen house. Fruit trees including a fig or higo grew in an archipelago of scattered beds around the house. Jessica smiled, identifying the plants by name and their origins. Maiana, it turned out, is a seed saver known in local Spanish speaking circles as a memory-keeper for ingredients that evoke histories of distant origins and difficult passages.
The time for carne de cordera barbacoa arrived. I took a seat next to David at one of the half dozen church hall tables set up in the shade of carport. There is no serving line, rather the women organize and distribute the plates, bringing each diner a selection of sopa, frijoles, spiced arroz, and barbacoa. A sharp salsa and stack of homemade tortillas graces every table – and we go for it. David shows me the art of using a tortilla as a utensil – and, more importantly, the transformative power of a salsa. We eat with gusto. Across the table, the twins, not yet two, go at their portions with equal enthusiasm. No children’s table here; no child helpings. Replete, David and I settle back and talk about family and friends. His pastor joins us and asks if I attend church. He’s thoughtful and listens. We exchange perspectives and share slices of cold watermelon. And then it hits me, “David,” I ask, “where did you get a full grown sheep?” “Robert,” he says. “Robert?” “Robert.” “Is this a Hog Island sheep?” “It is a sheep from Robert.”
Now, I happen to know that Robert and his wife Jen up until that moment were the keepers of Hog Island sheep, a rare breed relocated in the 1970s from one of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s offshore barrier islands. The flock from which those sheep descended were left to wander and forage the island after the last of the human residents fled the aftermath of hugely destructive hurricanes in 1933 and 1936. The island refugees took their possessions and even their houses to the mainland, resettling in fishing villages: Willis Wharf, Oyster, Quinby, Wachapreague. Some, Randolph Higby for instance, dug up treasured figs and grapes, transplanting them to new gardens where they still flourish. The sheep, though, they left behind.
Following the acquisition of a significant portion of the island by the Nature Conservancy, the decision came down that the island should be conserved as a largely untouched natural habitat. Bad news for the sheep who had resided there for generation upon generation. Sheep roundups followed and in time the Hog Island sheep were relocated to the mainland. Rare breed keepers acquired ewes and rams with the intent of preserving the breed and as a result substantial flocks gambol at Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. Robert and Jen, however, possessed among the very last flocks of Hog Island sheep on the Eastern Shore – and as far as I knew this was all the sheep they husbanded. “This sheep is from Robert?” I asked. “It is from Robert,” David said, and he continued, “This is the second time Robert has given us a sheep, but the first time when we went to get it, he was sitting on the ground by the fence with water on his cheeks. He was looking at the sheep – maybe it was Bertha.” I lean closer and David elaborated, “Robert, he said to me, ‘I can’t let the sheep go. I’ll pay you to leave her here.’ ‘Robert, she is already your sheep. You cannot pay me for a sheep that is yours.’” I imagine the scene. Robert having second thoughts; David arguing the illogic of the moment. In the end, reprieve was granted. In fact, I had seen the sheep grazing in their pen just a day or so ago. But then things changed: Robert gifted David the sheep and here we were eating Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa.
As I made my farewells and thanks to David and his family, I asked for a bit of leftover barbacoa. Two thoughts were on my mind. First, the source of the sheep needed to be verified with Robert; second, the barbacoa demanded sharing with my beloved friend David Shields who was deeply immersed in the search for the heritage foods of the American South and overseeing their listing on the passenger manifest of the Slow Food Movement’s Ark of Taste. One of the questions the Ark of Taste nomination form poses, sensibly enough, is how do things taste. When it comes to Hog Island rare breed sheep, this presentss something of an issue. But, then I had the answer in the cooler in the back of the car. My first stop, though, was Robert’s house. Verification was on the evidential menu.
Turning off of Church Neck Road into Robert and Jen’s drive that led to the back door and Robert’s woodwright’s shop, I came to a stop under the big tree that they festoon each Christmas with gigantic illuminated ornaments fashioned from mashed crab pots. Robert, accompanied by his rambunctious dogs Bear and Blue – both rescues, stepped from the porch into the shade. “How’s it going?” Aflame with curiosity, I skip the pleasantries, and get to the point, “Robert, did you give David one of those Hog Island sheep?” “I did. I gave him three, two six year olds and an eight year old.” “Did you know he was going to have a barbacoa?” “I did,” Robert answered, “but I forgot…and I don’t think I would have gone.” “The rest of sheep, the little ones, are all down at Capeville,” Robert quickly added, assuring me that there were Hog Island sheep still living near their ancestral home. “Do you want a taste of barbacoa?” I offered in reply. “Sure,” Robert took a pinch out of the freezer bag I held out. Chewing thoughtfully, “This is really good! I thought it would be stronger.” “Do you want some for you and Jen?” “No thanks, I think I’ve had enough.” Later I learned that when Robert told Jen that he had sampled the barbacoa from their former sheep, she looked into his eyes, giving him that gaze of heart-heavy sadness trimmed with a soft sigh of disgust, and asked simply, “How could you?”
I called David Shields, my epicurean comrade in arms, that evening, “Dave, guess what? I’ve just come back from a barbacoa up the road where we dined on Hog Island sheep Guatemalan style!” There are not too many folks I can cold call with this sort of news and get an informed response, “What?” “I ate Hog Island sheep barbacoa – and I have some for you to sample and answer that taste question on the Ark of Taste nomination.” “That’s a rare breed sheep,” followed by, “Well, what did it taste like?” “It was very tender and not at all strong in the way that I associate with mutton – and the salsa added to the shredded meat gave it some zing.” “Bernie,” Dave responded, “when the fellow who ate the last passenger pigeon was asked about its flavor, he responded, ‘fatty and herbaceous.’” Dave can’t sucker me with that kind of leading comment, “Neither,” I said, “more like delicate and rich – not like chicken.” I paused, “Do you want me to save some for you?” “Absolutely! How will it get here?” “You have to come to it.” “What can I bring to complement the barbacoa?” This was the question I’d been waiting for, knowing that Dave was deeply committed to the restoration of Carolina Gold Rice that grew in fields favored by rice birds or bobolinks. Small birds, they once swarmed the fields, ravaging the crop. Now they’re protected. I paused before answering, then said, “How about a lovely rice-fed bobolink pie?” “Could be a problem,” he answered, “but it’s possible.” “How possible?” “It won’t be a big pie.”