Cow’s head tacos

Do not get grossed out on me. Do not. The single most unusual thing at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium were the cow’s head tacos and I want to take a minute to discuss them.

Think about the most tender part of the cow. It’s the part that got the least exercise. Most people think of the tenderloin. But then there are beef cheeks, the ethereal beef cheeks. Just go one step further and understand that there is other meat in the head. Meat that, in my new opinion, should never go to waste.

Will Harris loves his cattle. The SFA made a film about him a while back that concluded with him having a drink at the end of the day – swilling wine directly from the bottle. So I already loved this man. Will honored his cattle by providing 42 heads to Kelly English of Restaurant Iris in Memphis to cook for Barbacoa de Cabeza at the symposium.

English created a temporary barbecue pit of cinder blocks and loaded it up with charcoal and wood. Then he wrapped the heads in burlap, nestled them in the pit and set the whole thing on fire. The spectacle drew the attention of  the Oxford Fire Department, which made the decision on the spot to turn the hoses on and put the fire out. Only the intervention of John T. Edge saved the honored cow heads from destruction.

The honored cows were eating grass on Will Harris’s Georgia farm on Monday. And after 18 hours, they are ready to come out of the pit. It is a fairly primal moment, I must say. I have never seen a cow’s head when it has not been attached to the cow. Slowly, the heads are transferred from the pit to a table for extraction of the meat. It is falling off the bone. Jonathan Magallenes, the chef at Los Tortugas , who is assisting Kelly and providing his sublime verde mole to mix with the meat, asks if I would like a sample. Well, of course I would.

I cannot describe to you how good this is. Think short ribs but much better. I literally do the happy dance across the parking lot, quite aware that I will never duplicate this moment. At the edge of the photo you can see one of the Lodge cast iron pans the chefs will use to keep the chopped meat warm. Lodge sponsored this dinner so a big thank you to them for swinging with the cow’s head idea.

At the end of the day, there are awards but I sneak out of the ceremony to be first in line for the tacos. I have no shame. The line will be long for these and I want to be in the front of it. Here they are, drizzled with creme frache, dusted with pumpkin seeds and served with an heirloom rice salad. I am beside myself because these are the most delicious tacos I’ve ever experienced. I consume one and a half and am full to the brim, but I feel as though I shouldn’t leave any beef on the plate. So I open the second taco and eat the remaining filling. One solitary consumer honoring Will Harris’s cows and Kelly English’s bravery in bringing them to the table.


Filed under beef

6 responses to “Cow’s head tacos

  1. Donna Florio

    Catherine, great meeting you today, and thanks for such a delightful, well-reported account of the great food and spirit of adventure that is SFA. Cow-head tacos–they’ll stick in my memory, too. Fabulous.

  2. Great seeing you again. Thanks for the shout-out on Lodge. We loved hosting the dinner!

  3. Lizzie

    The best part of the cow, in my opinion, gets pretty much exercise and it is the oxtail. If you fix some real slow-cooked oxtails and serve them with rice and a peppery gravy, with sides of collards and spoonbread, you have got yourself a meal! You may die next week of clogged arteries but at least you had a really good meal first. You may not want to divulge the source of this velvety-textured meat until after the meal. I know people who refuse to eat it because they don’t like the idea of eating something so close to what they politely describe as the butt. I tell them what they eat in hotdogs is worse.

  4. Karen Lee Martinez

    Tacos de cabeza are pretty standard fare in Mexico and parts of Southwest. The cabezas are not always cooked in this manner, but they always make great tacos!!!

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