It was one of those only-in-Mexico moments: my friend Janneth, yelling into the open window of a stranger’s home.
“Señora!” she called. The living room on the other side of the screen was dark. But an older woman’s voice answered back, from somewhere in the depths of the house.
“What do you want?”
Janneth replied honestly. “We want to learn how you make your carne de Chinameca! They told us it’s very good.” (Important fact: in Mexico, no one ever asks who “they” is.)
We waited a few seconds. Then came the woman’s muffled reply: “I’m busy.”
We had ended up there because we’d become a little obsessed with finding out the secrets of carne de Chinameca, a type of smoked meat that’s popular in Southern Veracruz. I didn’t even realize that barbecue — American-style barbecue — existed in that area of Mexico. Carne de Chinameca reminded me a lot of what norteamericanos might eat on the Fourth of July: a smoky, crispy-grilled meat that tasted like coals and campfire and being outside. I had first tried it on a picadita in Catemaco and it was a jolt to the brain. This wasn’t the salty, cured taste of tasajo. This was different. The smoke enveloped you, and lurking behind it all was some sort of savory flavor that I couldn’t identify.
We first tried to get more information on carne de Chinameca at the Coatzacoalcos market. A row of young girls sold piles of the deep-red colored meat, and they waved floppy pieces at Janneth, Martha and I, with their hands sheathed in plastic grocery bags. “Pásale guerita!” they called, shaking the meat.
We stopped and asked the girls about the marinade. They shrugged, saying the meat was brought to them directly from Chinameca. A woman at the end of the row overheard us and said, “Tiene achiote and pimentón.” Annatto seed and paprika.
We wanted more information, so the following afternoon we drove to Chinameca, about 30 minutes from Coaztacoalcos. I sort of expected to see a Texas Hill Country-type thing, with smokers parked on the roadside. It wasn’t like that — Chinameca turned out to be a collection of well-kept single-story houses, a pharmacy, a taquería. The only sign that it was a barbecue paradise were two open-air stands on the outskirts of town, both of which appeared to be smoking meat.
The first stand, an open-air wooden shack with a cobbled-together roof, had an obscene cluster of longaniza draped over the grill, dripping and smoking and hanging like a fresh pile of entrails.
The owner, a friendly woman, explained that the marinade contained chile guajillo, achiote and pimentón. She first cooked the longaniza on the grill and then smoked for it two to three hours, using pine, nanche or mango tree branches. (That’s when I realized: that flavor I couldn’t identify probably came from the wood.)
She told us about the other woman in town who made carne de Chinameca too. But when we drove over there and Janneth yelled in the window and that lead dried up, we found ourselves back at the friendly woman’s stand, gently prying for more information.
She let us observe her two young charges, teenage girls, who stood with their arms dunked halfway into a big plastic bucket, a stew of achiote and raw pork and water. One of the girls, who wore big hoop earrings and a beaded necklace with a saint’s face dangling off the end, removed her hands and rubbed an almond-sized piece of achiote paste into her palm, almost like soap. Then dragged her pasty red hand across the surface of the ground pork. This would eventually become longaniza — the pork stomach casings lay nearby.
“You have to scrub the achiote like this, because if you just toss it in with the meat, it won’t dissolve and you’ll just have a little ball in there,” she said. Janneth and I nodded knowingly.
I wanted to take pictures but thought that would be too invasive. So we purchased a kilo of meat and said goodbye, the teenagers with their hands in the buckets still when we left.
At the next stand, only 30 feet away at most, another family grilled reddish-orange filets at a grill set back from the street. We asked the young woman at the rustic counter if we could go back for a closer look, and she gave us a curt nod.
About a half-dozen people stood around the grill, and they all sort of stared at us. Janneth, as usual, explained. “We just wanted to see how the carne de Chinameca is smoked.” No one said anything. A young girl of about 10 wore a taquería apron that was too big for her, and she helped an older man cut a huge slice of pork, holding back raw pieces of fat and skin back so he could make a clean cut. We looked for a few seconds more and went back to the counter, where we bought a kilo of gorgeous, reddish-black, fleshy ribs.
In the end, I didn’t get a recipe, but that’s not exactly what I wanted. We learned the basic elements of the marinade. We learned that you’ve got to get your hands and forearms in there, and that handmade achiote paste — the basic stuff, without any seasonings — is a key ingredient. We learned that the kids start young. And, because it’s Mexico, that people will usually answer your questions even if you’re a stranger knocking on their door.
Someday when I have a backyard, I might make my own longaniza and suspend it over the grill, letting it drip its own fat down into the kindling. I’ll rub the achiote with my bare hands, and I’ll remember being in small-town Veracruz and searching for a secret.