Giant is Ferber’s novel about how a Virginia belle, Leslie Lynton, learns to be a Texan. Among her lessons is what to eat during a Texas-style picnic at her husband Reata,  Jordan’s ranch.

Reata Ranch Picnic. Luz Benedict (Mercedes MacCambridge), Jordan (Rock Husdon), and Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) greet their guests. George Stevens. Giant (1956).

At first, Leslie realizes that what she is looking at is “no ordinary picnic bonfire.” Watching the three vaqueros lift something from the fire pit, she thinks of an Atlantic clambake of “juicy lobsters and clams and crabs and the sweet corn, all drenched with hot butter sprinkled with salt and pepper, the whole melting on the tongue, sweet and succulent beyond description.”

The surprise is that of all the picnickers, and Leslie doesn’t — that what the vaqueros are lifting is barbacoa, a calf’s head roasted in layers of burlap sacks. At first, she’s aware of the aroma then realizes that she’s looking at “the mammoth head of an animal.” The hide and skin have been removed, “but all the parts remained, the eyes sunken somewhat in the sockets but still staring blindly out at the admiring world. The tongue lolled out of the open mouth, and the teeth grinned at the Texans who were smiling down in anticipation. Collops of roast meat hung from cheeks and jowls.”

Jordan (Rock Hudson) explains, “This is the real Spanish-Mexican barbecue, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). They despise what we Americans call barbecue—meat roasted over coals. This pit-cooking is the real Mexican barbacoa. That’s where we get the word.” George Stevens. Giant (1956)

Not wishing to disgrace Bick, Leslie eats, drinks, and talks. She tells the chef, Old Eusebio, that his cooking is “Wonderful.”   But when she watches a ranch hand dip his hand into the skull and wipe his hand on bread, she faints “dead away.”

Featured Image: after a long dusty drive, Jordan and Leslie arrive at Reata.George Stevens. Giant (1956).

See Edna Ferber. Giant. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1952; George Stevens. Giant (1956). Screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat based on Edna Ferber’s novel (1952)Warner Bros.

*Recipe for Pit-cooked Calf’s Head: Ferber says that the calf’s hair and skin are removed, but not the tongue or teeth. There is no mention of horns. Contemporary South Texas/Norteño-style barbacoa differs from barbecue because it is pit-cooked (en pozo) and not smoked or grilled indirectly. When available, the primary ingredient is a whole calf’s or cow’s head wrapped in burlap and buried in the coals for 12-18 hours.