Earth Oven Tragedy

I’m not much of a recipe person. Instead of teaspoons and tablespoons, my measurement system relies heavily on “dashes of this” or “hints of that.” I am comfortable with this system because it usually doesn’t fail me. In this case, this system completely failed me. In this case, I am Mayhem from the All State commercials, wanting to cut down a large tree. I watched two minutes of a 9-minute, DIY, meat pit video then went and "rented the biggest chainsaw I could find".

Yeah, it only gets worse from here, but hopefully someone will read this and propel himself to give it a better shot.


In the last weeks before I departed for New York, I caught wind of a new Netflix series entitled “Chef’s Table.” If you love food, I highly recommend you checking out this series. I absolutely love the show. Can’t wait for Season 2. My favorite episode depicted the life of the famous Argentinean chef, Francis Mallman. He spends most his time cooking outdoors in rural Patagonia where he also owns his own island

Yeah, crazy right?

In the Mallman episode, Francis and his band of gypsies-chefs constructed a meat pit by digging a hole in the ground, building a fire, wrapping some food up in leaves, and then burying it all in the hole. This style of cooking is known as “Curanto” in Patagonia. Mallman explained people all over the world have been cooking in pits or "earth ovens"  for over 12,000 years. He also said the taste of the meat and vegetables from a pit were amazing… and he also mentioned something about,

“...potatoes you could suck through a straw.”

If people 12,000 years ago were doing pits and making all this amazing food like "potatoes that you can suck through a straw", then I sure as hell should be able to do the same now in the 21st century... I just really wanted some of those potatoes.

Again, I recruited my younger brother, Sam, who was still home on Christmas break. Compared to Mallman’s band of gypsy-chefs, we were a little outmanned and inexperienced, but hey, I had watched an entire two minutes of the nine-minute, DIY video.

After trip to the local meat market, we had all the food staples we would need: 1 Boston butt (commercially raised), half dozen potatoes, half dozen yams, and four onions. I had also thawed out the second and last Boston butt from New York. (remember it was free-range pork) Comparing the two pork butts yielded a large difference, not only in price per pound, but also in appearance. The meat pit would be my personal test to see which pork really was the best.

Sam and I decided to make the process simple and thought we could use the family fire pit out on the patio. It is a nice circular pit, edged in Texas limestone and situated just perfectly to watch college bowl games and tend the fire simultaneously. We simply needed it to be a bit deeper to bury the meat and veggies ala Mallman. So we start digging and about 12 inches into it we hit a PVC pipe that services the swimming pool.

What knucklehead put a PVC pipe underneath a fire pit?

Backup plan in action, we relocated the pit to Nana’s raised and currently dormant, garden. We dug and dug, finally getting a nice 3-foot deep pit.


Now we would need something large to cover up the cavity. I quickly recycled some corrugated tin panels from an old barn and used some Boy Scout ingenuity to cut them to fit. The necessary tools were unavailable.


Next, we laid down some lava rock then got a nice sized fire going. While we waited for our bed of coals to form, I threw some salt and pepper on the vegetables and both Boston butts. Then per the video’s instructions, I wrapped everything individually in foil, then again in burlap. Some craft wire held the packages together and created a nice handle for lifting and moving the bundles while hot.


Late that night, after we had burned all of our wood and had some nice smoldering coals in the pit, we spread the rest of the lava rocks on top.Next we rounded up all of our “pit parcels” and doused the outer burlap wrappings with water. The water-soaked burlap would eventually create steam inside pit and slow cook the meat and vegetables over the next 12 hours.


This is where things got screwy. We set the parcels upon the lava rocks and immediately covered everything with dirt, followed with the tin cover.

You probably think I’m a dumbass. I kind of thought I was too for a bit. You can imagine my disappointment the next day around noon. With the entire family standing around the pit anticipating lunch and straw-sucking potatoes, I dug everything up to find it under cooked. The dirt had completely extinguished our coals. The gathering of family, once ready to feast, now trickled back indoors to grab their car keys and head into town for lunch.

Man, I screwed up. But was I going to squander this precious pork? Absolutely not. I was gonna give it another shot.

I wasted no time getting a second fire going. A little gasoline never hurt a meat pit, right? It does burn hair, though. After careful inspection in the mirror that night, I found that I had singed not one, but both sides of my head.

Like I said, we really are pyro maniacs.

Late that night, we had a decent amount of coals. We probably needed more, but I was rushing this second attempt so I could at least have Sunday lunch ready when the Family got back from church the next day. Again, we wrapped everything up, soaked it, and put it back on the coals. Again, we covered the mouth of the pit with 3 tin panels, but this time covered the panels with dirt. This looked right. Small holes in the tin allowed steam to roll out all night.

The next morning, the Family gathered for lunch.



  • Pork looked beautiful, but my seasoning was really weak.
  • The New York pork had  good flavor, but lacked seasoning as I mentioned above. It quickly got shredded and combined with some salt and brown sugar for lunchtime pulled pork sandwiches.
  • Nobody touched the Texas pork. But the Sisters sure did love the flavor!
  • All the potatoes were overcooked. Yes, I was deprived of the potatoes that you could suck through a straw.

Note: If you try this at home, don’t cover your meat packages and coals with dirt. The steam needs a pocket to properly cook everything.

...and hey, let me know if anyone achieves the straw-sucking potatoes.  I still want to try those.

The Gringo and la Reina Tamal

In Texas, tamales are a holiday tradition. Our gringo family has always been lucky enough to be gifted a couple of dozen for Christmas or we hit up Ventura’s in Victoria, Texas for some homemade, south of the border goodness. Since my dive into the culinary world this past year, Mom thought we should try our own hand at tamale making, so she scoured social media in search of the best tamale teacher in town. Word on the street was Mrs. Lisa was the “reina tamal,” or the tamale queen for you gringos. My last post talked about the hog’s head and pork butts I brought back from New York. Now I could get to work on those beauties.

With the meat thawed, I carefully skinned the hog’s head and the Boston Butt then threw them into a monster-sized pot to boil.



My younger cousins scrutinized the pig’s head submerged below the water’s surface and unanimously swore they would “never eat tamales again!” The trimmings from the skin, along with the ears and snout were tossed into a dehydrator to be made into dog chews. This is the concept known as the “nose-to-tail” butchery. As a rule, you use every part of the hog except “except the squeal.” These dried remnants were going to make some pooch really happy come Christmas morning and I didn’t want to waste a thing.

Now if you’re wondering if ‘la reina tamal’ was in anyway a bit apprehensive about some gringo family contacting her out of the blue on Facebook, in search of her prized tamale recipe, you would be spot on. Once Mrs. Lisa arrived with her husband Steve, she confessed she had prayed over the matter before getting the green light from the Big Guy. So there we were. Standing in our kitchen like old family friends. One ready to teach and one ready to learn.

Mrs. Lisa quickly took over the pot of cooking pork. Seasoning and testing. Seasoning and testing.

Let me stop here and explain this is the part where Steve comes in. Steve is ‘la reina tamal’s ’ official taster. Mrs. Lisa has a long tradition of never eating tamales except on Christmas Eve. Not even to taste it for spiciness during preparation. All these years, she has passed forkfuls of pork to her husband until he gives the official “go-ahead” nod of approval. So finally, with a bow of the head and a grin on his face, Mr. Steve proclaimed the meat, “perfect.”

Mr. Steve going in for a little masa taste test.

Leaving me to debone and hand-grind the pork, Mrs. Lisa warned me the real work didn’t start until the next day. Early tomorrow morning we would all gather and start the tedious, assembly-line process of filling and wrapping. She advised me more than a few times before she and her husband left for the night, to get a good night’s sleep.

Early the next morning, the family assembled in the kitchen, ready for the real lesson to begin. Mrs. Lisa arrived with yet another secret ingredient: fresh made masa from a local tortilla factory.

Freshly made masa

Mrs. Lisa, who doesn’t sit at anytime while she makes her tamales, carefully seasoned the masa and mixed it with her hands. Just as before, she abided by her rule religiously. She never tasted the meat or masa at any point, but would pinch off small balls of masa for me to judge. Mr. Steve presided over the whole process, making sure the gringo didn’t steer Mrs. Lisa too far from the original recipe.

the Masa Mash

Once the masa was seasoned and chili red in color, we turned the kitchen into a small tamale factory. One end of the breakfast table was devoted to spreading the masa on the pre-soaked cornhusks, or “ojas” as Mrs. Lisa called them. The other end of the table filled the ojas with meat, then rolled and wrapped the top of the filled husks over.

The family, young and old, assembled to partake in the tamale making. Not saying you are old Aunt Audrey!

The meat end of the table was going smoothly, but I could see Mom and the aunts having difficulty with the masa spreading. Mrs. Lisa’s years of practice, churned-out some textbook ojas. All precisely spread with masa. All perfectly ¾ of the way up the husk. Mom and the Aunts, not so much.

Nana having a tough time spreading masa!

Two and a half ours later, 21 dozen tamales lay bundled on the table, ready for steaming. Using the leftover seasoned water from the boiled pork, I lined 2 large pots with the remaining cornhusks. After a little steaming, the family crowded around to sample.

Tamales ready to be steamed.

Remember those family members who were grossed out by the meat? Yeah, they got over that pretty quick. These were some of the best tamales I’ve ever eaten. The family thought so too.

21 dozen tamales! And they were SOOO good.

A BIG THANKS  to Mrs. Lisa and Mr. Steve. I really appreciate y’all taking the time out of the holiday season to share your treasured family recipe. My family and I had an absolutely wonderful time.

My teacher, the queen of tamale making, Mrs. Lisa. Thanks so much!