Maximilian I reigned as Emperor of Mexico from 1864 through 1867, when he was executed. His death yielded countless conspiracy theories, making him something like a 19th-century John F. Kennedy. Some of these theories have Maximilian cheating death by bribery, while others have him ferreted across the border by supporters. Many of the theories focus on the supposed participation by Masons, also known as Freemasons: a centuries-old fraternal order that connects dignitaries and bankers, judges and landowners, politicians and clerics around the world. It is a semi-secret society that is famed for its self-mythologizing and for its richly coded iconography, and it remains to this day a lightning rod for paranoid political fantasists.
Part I (1865): The Masons love their games, their plots, their symbols, their puzzles. History is itself a kind of puzzle, though two years ago Esteban Herrera did not know this.
Two years ago it was 1865, and Herrera was simply a hard-working Mexican goat farmer with steadily expanding land holdings several miles south of Queretaro. Herrera’s healthy herds had brought him wealth, and wealth had brought him to the attention of Manuel Olivera. Olivera was the unofficial mayor of the region. Actual mayors had come and gone, yet all the while Olivera’s power had remained a consistent, even a growing, presence.
Herrera had on more than one occasion traveled by carriage to Queretaro, knocked on the door of Olivera’s office, and submitted a request for a loan: to dig a new well, to house additional Indians to watch over his goats, to transform an old dirt path into something more suitable to carriages. Herrera had never met Olivera, but he knew that whatever money he received had come with Olivera’s approval. And he knew that whatever money he repaid was returned, with interest, to Olivera’s pockets.
And then, one day, in the early spring of 1865, it was Olivera who knocked on Herrera’s door. Olivera introduced himself, though an introduction was not necessary. Olivera complimented Herrera on the quality of his goats, on his successes as an entrepreneur, and on the mercy he displayed toward the Indians who cared for his land, raised his children, and prepared his meals.
Later that afternoon Olivera and Herrera shared the meat of a young goat, cooked by Herrera’s staff in a manner that Olivera said he had not tasted since he was a very young boy. As dusk approached, Olivera finally informed Herrera of the reason for his visit. Olivera explained that he was a Mason, a member of a small society of businessmen, men who desired that Herrera join their group. Herrera was fascinated by the membership Olivera claimed for this society. Apparently Emperor Maximilian, still newly arrived from Europe, was himself a Mason, and though he never attended their meetings, he would on occasion send his chef and confidant: a formidable Hungarian who went by the name Tudos.
Part II (1867): Two years later, Esteban Herrera still felt very much the new member among the Masons of Queretaro. The Masonic meetings he attended every few months were mostly social affairs. But business was done, and clearly the doing of business meant not just what was good for the region around Queretaro, but what was good for the Masons, both here and abroad. The Masons’ influence seemed to touch everything, even if at times it seemed, to Herrera, that this influence was difficult to pinpoint. At first Herrera had tried to validate some of the more fanciful stories he heard during the meetings. He failed to confirm the Masonic installation of popes and kings, and he couldn’t locate the Masonic imprint on one or another piece of foreign currency, and he certainly couldn’t understand how the powers of ancient Egypt had given shape to modern affairs.
At the same time, the organization was not nearly as humble as Olivera had once suggested: it was comprised primarily of businessmen, yes, but that was just a piece of the puzzle. Often the “business” discussions at meetings sounded more like “politics.” Herrera did not despair. He simply shifted his attention from how the Masons’ reputed accomplishments were achieved, to how the stories of these accomplishments were constructed. Claims, he began to understand, were often more powerful than actions.
And then early in June, news of Maximilian’s impending execution reached Herrera’s home, and he was not surprised that shortly thereafter followed an announcement of another Masonic gathering. The one surprise was its location: It would be the first such meeting held at Herrera’s estate. Herrera informed his staff of the impending meeting. Guests would arrive in three days’ time, and he told his cooks that goat barbacoa was to be the main course. The men of the Masons loved Herrera’s goats, and this was the meal that showed those goats to their best effect. The timing was perfect. It would take three days for the goat to cook slowly, buried under thick leaves in a shallow pit beside Herrera’s guest house.
Three days later, carriage after carriage arrived at the Herrera estate, and through the carriage windows were seen some of the most accomplished businessmen of Queretaro. Along with them were familiar faces of local politicians. And along with them were unfamiliar faces. These, Herrera soon learned, belonged to visiting Masons from the around the world. He welcomed them like brothers, for they were brothers. The meeting began as the Indian cooks made the final preparations for dinner. The meeting room’s deep red carpet was dappled by light that came through newly installed stained glass windows.
As the Masons planned, they could hear the Indian cooks singing from outside. One song in particular helped Herrera keep track of time. Every hour, on the hour, the cooks sang in low tones the same traditional dirge. Perhaps even some among Herrera’s guests might have understood its words: "The land gives us life. The land gives us life. The land gives us grain, and fruit, and meat. The land gives us life. And the land is our oven. It is where we cook our meals. And it is where we burn and bury our secrets."
Herrera, as was his habit, kept silent throughout the meeting, except when receiving thanks for his hospitality. He listened as his brothers developed their plan: a plan for Maximilian’s escape. There were, in fact, numerous plans, all with one thing in common: all ushered a disguised Maximilian to some land beyond Mexico’s borders. In one plan, Maximilian would take Tudos’ name and work as a chef in Manhattan. In another he would hide as a painter of landscapes in a coastal town in California. In another he would return to Europe and appear as his own long lost cousin. There were at least twice as many plans as there were courses to the meal. Herrera was entranced; he felt like a boy at story time as he waited for the best plan to be selected by his esteemed guests. Yet as dinner turned to dessert, a treat prepared graciously by Tudos himself, Herrera came to a realization: all the plans were being crafted with equal attention to detail because Maximilian’s fate was already sealed. He would die by firing squad. The best the Masons could do was to diminish the execution’s impact by instigating rumor of his escape. They would make their claim impossible to verify by letting a variety of alternate versions of the story follow quick upon the news that would, by month’s end, disperse from Queretaro to all around the world.
The goat barbacoa, like the meeting, was a success, at least gauging by Olivera’s disposition. He had had much to eat, and even more to drink. Toward the end of the meal, he rose to his feet, heaped praise upon their host, Herrera, and said with his customary bravado, "If our plan works, our secret should remain buried for at least a dozen dozen years."
A Sors is a project about the intersection of myth and food. The following photos show the preparation of the 5 whole goat barbacoa that is the central course of the A Sors meal. Julio and Max are excited to explore this idea in the legend of Emperor Maximilian I of México and his intimate relationship with his imperial chef, a Hungarian named Tudos.
Wednesday, June 22, 7:44PM
Wednesday, June 22, 9:46PM
Wednesday, June 22, 11:06PM
Thursday, June 23, 11:06AM
Continue reading the last post here.