The traditions that feed us

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Matanzas are centuries-old traditions typically held in the cool fall months as a way to fill the freezer. Today, matanzas are hosted for large celebrations.

There aren’t a lot of salads at a matanza, but then again, no one expects there to be.

The centuries-old tradition was once the primary way families throughout the Rio Grande Valley and New Mexico prepared and stored meat for the winter months. While some families still use the cool fall months as a way to fill the freezer, matanzas are now typically hosted for large celebrations.

With a family reunion running into the hundreds of people, Fernando Sisneros and his family know the days of work that go into hosting a matanza.

“It’s a long day and you start prepping for it a few days in advance,” said Sisneros, of Belen. “Digging pits for fires, gathering up all the equipment.

“Then you are getting up early to get that fire going to start boiling water so you can throw the gunny sacks in there and then shave the pig.

“It’s a long day and then when you’re all done, you have had fun and all that, then you got to clean up. That’s the worst.”

While many matanzas in the valley will feature a pig, which is first soaked with those hot, wet gunny sacks to soften the stiff bristles for shaving, Sisneros said his family traditionally use either a sheep or beef.

After the animal is prayed over, it’s quartered and prepared to be cooked in a pit for hours. For close to two decades, meat for the Sisneros family matanzas would be wrapped in foil, then wet gunny sacks, a second layer of foil usually, before it was put in the ground.

“You make the fire real hot and let it burn, so it’s just the brasas, coals. Then you put the meat on top of that and cover the hole with a piece of metal and dirt, so no air gets out. Basically, it’s just slow roasted in an underground oven.”

The meat cooks for about 10 hours, he said, then another six or so for good measure. With no air able to enter the pit, the meat won’t burn.

Of course there’s red chile, green chile and a few sides to go along with the meat — beans, papitas, tortillas, maybe some sopaipillas. No salads though.

In recent years, with access to the family sheet metal shop, Sisneros and other family members have created metal, permanent pits.

Again using juniper to create a bed of coals, the meat is placed into metal pans with water, red wine, salt, pepper and garlic. The pans are sealed and then put into the pit, which is also sealed.

“Basically, it makes a pressure cooker. We bury it and leave it for about 12 hours and, the next day, it’s the most juicy meat you’ll ever have,” Sisneros said.

“Sometimes, we’ll cook maybe half of it and then the rest of it we will either process ourselves or we’ll take it to a processer and have them package it up, that way you have some in the freezer.”

A special dish Sisneros makes at family events is a small batch of something similar to carne adovada, pork marinated in red chile then slow cooked.

“I throw a little bit of pig fat (in a pan) to get some oil and I’ll cut up some little pieces of carnitas, usually the tenderloin, then fry it with red chile. It kind of gets a little bit of crispiness to it.

“I think it’s just something I got from my mom watching her cook. It’s probably a heart attack waiting to happen, but you get the homemade tortilla and you get some of that oil from the chile …”

As generations have passed down the matanza tradition, things have changed — do you use all wood? Propane? — and there’s always the perennial debate about proper chicharrone etiquette. Do you stir them or leave them alone? If you stir, how often? Metal or wood?

Someone has to bring the sweet rice and make the biscochitos.

These dishes and more are pure New Mexican, and while often confused with Mexican foods by those not from or familiar with the Land of Enchantment they simply aren’t.

“It’s got similarities to Mexican but it’s different,” Sisneros said. “I think it’s a blend where you are learning from different traditions from the Native American and Spanish culture and it came together. We learned from each other. That’s why I think New Mexico foods are more unique than anywhere else.”

Being able to carry on the cooking traditions of his dad and grandfather, passing them down to his sons, is something Sisneros treasurers.

“It’s neat to follow and carry on the tradition, and see things change. Things have to change. That’s the natural cycle of the world, but to try to keep some of the old ways, that is pretty neat.

“I don’t know where I heard it, but it was something like, ‘If you lose your food, you lose your culture.’”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.