Giant: Barbacoa de Cabeza

Year Released: 1956
Directed by: George Stevens
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean
(G, 201 min.)

Academy Awards (1957)
Directing: George Stevens

"It’s not good to want a thing too much." John Steinbeck

This Texas classic is worth seeing if for no other reason than to watch those legendary screen icons Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, all at their peak. And it’s rather amazing to see that the clash between East and West, man and woman, have and have-nots, still resonates.

Giant gives us Elizabeth Taylor at the perfect stage in her career where her physical beauty is on a par with her acting. The movie was made while she was married to Mike Todd and that contentment anchors the performance.

Rock Hudson’s Jordan Benedict is at once the charming leading man, the ruthless cattle baron, and the frontier realist who captivates and exasperates us right along with Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie.

James Dean, in his final performance, leaves us with certain images that will never fade. The scene where he sits in his old car, silhouetted against the Western sky, his hat pulled down over his eyes, still haunts. 

***

From their first meeting the magnetism between Jordan and Leslie is apparent. Jordan has journeyed east to buy a prize stallion and he sees Leslie astride the horse, marvelous in hunting gear. She gallops past as he rides from the railway station with her father. “That’s a magnificent animal,“ he says, in such a way that even Daddy knows Jordan has more than equine flesh on his mind.

That night at dinner, Jordan doesn’t know how to answer the question about the size of his ranch. They want acres: he speaks counties. And so the differences begin.

Despite the fact that Leslie is engaged to a tame diplomat soon to be shipped overseas, she sets her cap for Jordan, and stays up all night reading about his beloved Texas. The next day, by way of flirting, she tells him that Texas was stolen from Mexico. Jordan’s eyes smolder behind his polite denial.

Things move fast from there. Jordan arrives back in Texas not only with the prized back stallion, but his new bride Leslie as well.

It is not a warm welcome that the newlyweds get from Luz Benedict, Jordan’s maiden sister, played to perfection by Mercedes McCambridge. She is the cactus of that desert spread, sharp and cutting to protect a tender and vulnerable interior as she and Leslie joust for position as lady of the house. The final showdown is through a surrogate, the eastern stallion whose arrival has coincided with Leslie’s. In Luz’s eyes, both these feisty challengers must be subdued, and the horse seems as good a place as any to start.

James Dean’s Jett Rink is at the center of many other conflicts. He takes Leslie to the off limits village where the Mexican families live in squalor. Leslie is indignant at their treatment, and her battles for their betterment are a cause of friction between her and Jordan. 

There is little love lost between Jett and Jordan, who sees the sometime ranch hand as little more than human debris. The situation is not helped when Jett inherits a small piece of land from soft-on-him sister Luz and then finds it is dripping in oil.

The fact that Jett worships the ground Leslie walks on, almost literally, further complicates.

And just when things are complicated enough, the second generation begins to grow up. An almost unrecognizably young and clean-cut Dennis Hopper plays son Jordan Benedict III, who seems determined to cut his own way rather than take the stewardship of the ranch his father has worked so carefully to hand down. His choice of a Mexican wife is a hard pill for his father to swallow, and it is Jordan’s struggle with that issue that dominates much of the latter half of the film.

In the way of all flesh, the other children disappoint, disengage, and ultimately enlighten their parents.

But like the second part of Wuthering Heights, or conversely, the prequels to Star Wars, the other generations do not spark the same passion as their kin. 

The cheesy redo of the majestic ranch house, with white panels replacing rough-hewn timbers, soft carpets covering sturdy ranch plank, and an out-of-place swimming pool perched in the desert plains, signals a second half that is out of its comfort zone as well.

Forget the epic saga, I say, and end on a high note, with Elizabeth Taylor still lovely and young, Jordan the cocky chauvinist instead of domesticated grandpa, and James Dean forever rooted in our minds as the lonely outcast silhouetted against the sunset.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie has a lot to cope with when she marries Jordan, but she handles it like the strong woman she is. She does not stand down to sister-in-law Luz, and she wrestles with all her charm and will to wrest Jordan from what she sees as his backward beliefs, but she is powerless against two forces of nature is West Texas – the noonday sun and barbacoa. Soon after her arrival, Jordan arranges a celebration in her honor featuring a real Texas barbecue infused, like everything else there, with a Mexican flavor. 

Luz warns Leslie about the sun, somewhat slyly I think, but Jordan is naively well meaning when he explains to her how the “barbacoa” is made. It is the first and only time she ever faints.

Barbacoa de Cabeza

Ingredients

  • 1 Cabeza, beef head
  • 4 large Texas yellow onions
  • 3 Heads garlic
  • 2 Bunches Cilantro
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Corn or flour tortillas
  • Pico de gallo and your favorite salsa(s)

Directions

Before you actually get the cabeza (beef head), understand that it won't look very nice -in fact it will look pretty gruesome. Therefore, I suggest purchasing the thing the day you cook it. 

In the Rio Grande Valley, barbacoa de cabeza is traditionally eaten on Sunday mornings. 

Clean the cabeza, removing eyes, ears, etc. Discard the tongue. Leaving it will impart an odd taste to the meat. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the whole cabeza. Wrap the cabeza in a paper sack, along with onions, garlic, and cilantro. Wrap THAT in burlap. 

Dig a hole 2 feet deep and build a driftwood fire in it. Wait until 
the fire goes to coals, then cover them with ashes, followed by the cabeza, then about 2 inches of dry dirt or sand. Fill up the hole. Add 6 to 8 inches of dirt or sand over it. Build a fire on top of the ground. Use slow-burning wood such as oak or mesquite. 

Leave the cabeza in the hole 12 to 18 hours. For example, if you begin cooking it at 4:00 p.m., it should be ready by the next morning. Serve with tortillas. 

If your spouse objects to the digging the hole in the backyard, then wrap the cabeza in foil and bake it in an oven or over a charcoal grill. Using foil in place of the paper bag keeps the cabeza slightly moister while it it cooking. I also suggest not 'cleaning' the head in the kitchen-tends to strain a marriage. 

If you cannot get a fresh cabeza, use a large chuck roast (10-12 lbs.) and follow the same directions. Not as 'tasty', but a good substitute and less work to prepare.

Recipe Source: Secrets to Cooking TexMex

This wonderful recipe comes from Mike Ludwig, who has many years experience as a restaurateur in San Antonio. While many recipes avoid the real source of meat, a cow’s head, and skip right on down to bland replacements, Mike gives us the real thing. Try not to faint. Visit his website and find out about his great book Secrets to Cooking TexMex.