Grant Cogswell (Los Angeles, 1967) was educated on military bases in Europe and at Cal State University Northridge and the University of Virginia. Known for his transit advocacy in Seattle, he is the subject of Stephen Gyllenhaal’s film ‘Grassroots’ (2012) and author of a volume of poetry, The Dream of the Cold War: Poems 1998-2008, available from Publication Studio. He is the founder and proprietor of Under the Volcano Books (www.underthevolcanobooks.com)
It was good. It was nutty and smooth and sweet like ice cream. But I could tell it was nutritious. I knew I wouldn’t have to eat for a long time. Everyone in the bar looked related, even to me, my leg jiggling up and down to the song blasting out of the jukebox over our sweating heads. It felt good to sweat. I knew only one song in Spanish, ‘Serenata Norteña’ by Los Lobos, the second song on the second side of How Will the Wolf Survive which I bought on vinyl at the only record store in suburban Simi Valley, California, December of 1984, the last month of my senior year in high school. Apart from this, I had only heard brassy banda now and again in college in Los Angeles, booming formal and joyous from the passing cars of – cholos? (Was that an insult?) Like most any third-generation white Angeleno my ear could pick out little more than the words echoing Southland place names I’d pronounced in flat English without knowing their meanings all my life. I loved that song. I picked up the key there and twenty-one years later put it in the lock that opened this door. What was this music? The words would hang in the air and I would swim towards them; as long as it took me to finish learning the language, they would be there and I would understand them and all the patrons in the bar would still be singing. That was just a thought.
I’d met Pepe, a scruffy junior Falstaff on Holy Week break from UNAM, in a beachside palapa hotel on the Oaxaca coast, and he promised to take me around the capital before I flew home to Seattle. My real knowledge of the place was founded on a piece in the Village Voice, cerca 1992, on the nascent punk scene there, illustrated with a photo of the vast central square of the Zocalo, a place I imagined was dirty and dangerous and ancient and hugely vacant in the modern moment. Over the intervening years I had run into people who had passed through, humbled by what I imagined was their bravery, breathlessly questioning them about the danger of the place (to their scorn) and watching their eyes glaze with love when they told me, to a person, that I had to go. Pepe whisked me from my hostel to his favorite neighborhood, Roma, where we squeezed past corner newsstands and kids drinking forties on the sidewalk and into a narrow bar packed beyond capacity.
It took ten minutes to order, twenty to make it to the bathroom (a urinal trench separated from the nearest table by a wooden window shutter nailed to the wall). La Hija de los Apaches was a traditional-style pulqueria: tile walls, sawdust floor, a retired boxer ladling thick, white liquid into glass jars, surrounded by clippings of his younger incarnation in the ring. Tables of students sang Mexican punk songs with the gusto of sailors in a black-and-white movie where everybody is about to go to war and die. The bartender rattled off the flavors, words for fruits I still don’t know the English for because I never encountered them in the States – guayaba, guayabana, mamey – and mango, banana, Quik-colored strawberry, oatmeal and nuez, walnut : what I’d later learn are the curados, ‘cured’ with fruit (and a generous amount of sugar, usually).
The natural, or ‘white’, blanco, the pure product of the cactus, is a viscous clear liquid at the rim, lit up by millions of tiny bubbles. It is frequently likened to semen and is an acquired taste that, at its freshest, carries the strongest savor of the plant itself. I ordered nuez, and got a jar of syrupy, light brown beverage with tiny slivers of nutmeat, bubbles rising glacier-slow in the opaque liquid, almost too small to see. This was something old, and the room itself cave-like and full. I was exhausted, back up at 7000 feet, overwhelmed by the rush of the city I’d only just begun to see as unthreatening. Strangers smiled and toasted me vigorously, and drank and toasted all their friends again, who toasted me, and we drank.
“I’m very, very high,” I said to Pepe. “Como se dice?” “Estas muy pedo, güey,” Pepe said, and smiled. “Es el pulque.” Pepe was a poet. His poems were about the suffering he saw in the three-hour commute between his home on the outskirts of the city and the University. He recited one about a street clown (Mexicans still love clowns), dirty, in the rain on the side of a highway, translating between the lines. Its sadness wasn’t corny, but real. Tears of a clown, yes. I almost spoke but it wasn’t necessary. Pepe lifted his glass, full of the strong-smelling blanco, and recited. “Pulque bendito / dulce tormento / Que haces afuera? Ven pa el dentro!” (Blessed pulque / sweet torment / What are you doing outside? / Get in here!) Later I’d see this ditty on pulqueria walls from Condesa to Xochimilco and know that he hadn’t made it up on the spot. ‘London Calling’ came on the jukebox and I wanted to jump out of my skin. I satisfied myself with tapping both fists, squeezed tight, very lightly on the surface of the table, silently mouthing the words. The details of things in the room, moving, hummed in their belonging.
Mexicans are almost desperately convivial: they huddle together with strangers over lunch, live in vecindades, courtyard apartments so tightly stacked that neighbors are just an arm’s reach away. There are no noise ordinances, and until recently, when heavy industry was pushed out of the residential city, no zoning. The core difference between Mexico and the United States – from which all else flows – is that the English killed the Indians and kept them apart, while the Spaniards enslaved and mated with them. The indigenous world was interrupted, pressed into killing labor, Europeanized, but never – still – entirely. Select American (U.S.) folkways come from the native tribes – the idea of no man ranking higher than another, for instance. But here the Mediterranean mixes with the Zapotec and Nahuatl. The Valley of Mexico, which gave this country its name, has only been inhabited for some 5000 years. The giant pyramids in the city’s suburbs are in fact pre-Aztec, and the conquered peoples could not tell the Conquistadors who their builders were. Forty years after Cortes, the new faith had been pressed deeply enough on the natives that one campesino had a vision of Mother Mary. The image that appeared on Don Jose’s cloak after he dumped out its sudden cargo of rose petals can today be seen in shrines and on car bumpers from the Isthmus of Panama to Alaska. There is a subway station now just below the hill where he had his vision, just outside the hangarlike chapel that holds the famous cloak. Mexico’s ancient history is not unreachably distant, and her ancient traditions continue. The ritual and the agrarian here are contemporary.
I grew up in a family of drinkers. I myself only started when I received a bottle of chocolatey Tía María for my fifteenth birthday, drank it after everyone went to bed and fell asleep in a pool of my own vomit on the living room floor, which everyone thought was hilarious. It was not until I left high school that I came to understand Screwdrivers and Bloody Marys were not normal for working adults to take with breakfast. I drank so much in the years after my father died, when I was twenty, that I don’t remember any more than a handful of people from my second college. One of my classmates was Tina Fey: we were English majors, outsiders in an extremely stratified and yet hypersocial East Coast ‘public Ivy’: at the time she had a distinctive facial scar. We must have known each other but I have no memory of her whatsoever. I stopped drinking cold turkey twice, each time for a period of four years, once when I was twenty-three and once when I was thirty-one. Alcohol always brought relief as it crystallized pain into a distant visage, drawing near; a bass note, an undertow that swelled until I was entirely gone.
From the point of the destruction of all my hopes around the middle of the last decade – Google me – and the subsequent draining of my inheritance – which was considerable, having buried my whole family by the time of my twenty-fifth birthday – I began drinking a half-pint, or pachita, of Presidente brandy (as ubiquitous within the former boundaries of Mexico as Our Lady ) nearly every day. Sometimes two. Six years later, on New Year’s Day two years ago, I looked around at my life and saw it didn’t entirely suck anymore, and stopped for the third time in my life. A couple months later I backslid, at a party with a new girlfriend, and had three beers, and the engine of solace roared back to life. But this time – after a couple years of drinking one or two liters of pulque once or twice a week, everything not made from cactus (that is, all alcoholic beverages excluding pulque, mezcal and tequila, and their bitter agave and maguey distillates) no me cayó bien, didn’t hit me right.
Two years on, I drink tequila on occasion but have pulque twice a week. At most it gets me a little high for several hours. Like the other cactus beverages it is a stimulant, and rather than fogging the memory, improves it. I awake the next day refreshed and peaceful but alert. I have manifested addictive behavior with regard to food, sex, strippers and porn, interstate relocation, painkillers, recovery, projects and compulsive rituals, since I was a child. I’ve not ever been clinically deemed a chronic alcoholic, but certainly was for a very long time a behavioral one. I believe that somewhat like methadone for heroin addicts, pulque very gradually eased me from habitual boozing, leaving me to enjoy drinking in enjoyable moderation, something I had never done before. Probably it would never be recommended as a patented cure. But I will make this claim: were it not for a regular and modest intake of pulque – one simply cannot drink it day after day, the intestines and even the mind itself feel prohibitively full – I would still probably be a functional alcoholic.
Since that first taste the high I’ve gotten from pulque has been less profound. Half of it, I am sure, was the newness of the city, its sudden immanence and assault of detail, and the excitement it called up in me, as if – a Californian who grew up in European cities – I had found the admixture, with these crowded sidewalks, dark willows and desert sky, that would permanently call me home. But still, the fundamental symptoms persist for me, chiefly a caffeinated thrill without coffee’s itchy edge, the expectation that takes hold in the first half hour after taking mushrooms, a high note that holds clear for hours, never peaking or collapsing into despair. It seems at any point – in the non-hangover that comes the next day with a feeling of lightness and rightness, in the depths of a long pulque binge in which confession becomes easy and even necessary, regardless of consequence, the exact reliability of the memory to contain everything done or seen or said – that pulque is a stranger to despair.
There is very probably an aspect of the pulque high, like that of psilocybin mushrooms, that means it should be ingested close to its native biome for maximum efficacy and fit. For me there are few things more enjoyable than hurrying in the Thursday or Friday evening pedestrian traffic along the long, busy street of Insurgentes (world’s longest), dodging vendors and slow lovers like obstructions in a video game. Flash outline of an Aztec profile against the clouding sky, the same gay couple of nurses in the nook where you change trains at Centro Médico, the swinging low naked lightbulbs under the striped canopies of pirate video stands and taco grills on the banked sidewalk of Baja California, and further down, where Insurgentes circles out, bisected by Quintana Roo, the little puestos laid out around the fountain in front of the Office Max and the Department of Health, Development, Assistance and Fisheries, like preparations for a fair.
The drink puts a heat in you, to sweat off during sleep. (Does this sound unpleasant? It is the most common dealbreaker.) Pulque dreams have a distinct mood not unrelated to the drug’s waking effects, but underneath the reassuring, low mist, dark portents swim, seldom – but on rare occasion – breaking into overwhelming, Lovecraftian horror. The character of most of these night visitations is oddly, exactly evoked by Krystov Kieslowki’s film The Double Life of Veronique: The calm, universal sympathy, alongside the sense of the uncanny and multiple, the exact and gentle details in this film, are as inadvertantly expressive of the pulque high as, say, the visual imagery for Nirvana’s In Utero is, intentionally (I’m told), of heroin. On rare occasions it turns frightening in the dream state, its power like nothing I’ve experienced.Out of some four hundred times I’ve had pulque, twice have I gone to the bad place. Once I hung helpless in a conscious half-sleep for what seemed like hours, unable to move my body or keep myself from watching time pass, slowly. More than a year ago, my girlfriend and I had both had pulque (and this is why I believe the bad dreams come from a particular batch, not chance reactions to good product): in the pure, curtained darkness of our room at 3 AM, she cried out in terror. I shook her awake, only frightening her more,. Waking fully, she rotated onto her stomach, hands under her chin, and told me she had never been so scared: in her dream we had been on a beach, she emerged from the sea and I came to her, but as I came I turned white. I could hear her, and see her lips moving in the darkness. I am white, I joked.
No, she said, white like a cartoon character, and evil. In the dream, she said, I had been strangling her. Suddenly I realized she was speaking lying down, her head on the pillow, and the shadow of that shape I’d been watching up on its elbows grew tall, and chased by passing headlights, jumped to the wall. I couldn’t suppress a gasp of terror. I kept silent, not wanting to scare her more, but she demanded I tell what I had seen, and was growing more frightened by the second. I stammered it out, and we lay there holding each other, in a horror movie-world made real, for something like three or four minutes. Then we went back to sleep.
There are the erections, too. It is an exaggeration to call pulque ‘the Mexican Viagra’, as the shirts printed by Pulqueria Los Insurgentes do, the maguey in full flower rooted below the beltline, thin flagstem rising clear to the shoulder. Casual drinkers won’t notice: the effect is nothing like the fascistic four-hour hardon induced by that famous drug. But after some time with the beverage over weeks and months, an awakeness presents itself down there, in cells spongate and otherwise, as if coffee were running not along the nerves but the muscles and tissue. Most blessedly also in my experience, it functions as a muscle relaxant which soothes my chronic nerve pain and a whole-body massager. Next day, sore muscles are strengthened, movement easy, back-tweaks eliminated.
The Centzon Totochin, four hundred rabbit gods who are the celestial patrons of pulque, lie at the center of the religion of the Aztecs and their contemporaries. That religion put on what is often a very token disguise in order to gain acceptance as Catholicism. Mexico is Indian country, original languages replace Spanish almost as soon as you leave the city, any city. Before World War II, when a majority of Mexicans drank pulque for nutrition – “just shy of being meat” the saying goes – and recreation, the economies of Hidalgo (which only in the 19th century became a silver-mining hub thanks to poverty-driven exiles from Cornwall) and Tlaxcala survived largely on supplying the drink to a much-smaller Mexico City.
Beer companies spread the rumor that an old method of speeding fermentation was the use of a muñeca, or doll, made of human feces wrapped in cloth, introduced to the mixture. Industrial distribution methods came into effect, and since pulque ferments continually, releasing gases all the while, it can’t be bottled or shipped or kept for long even when refrigerated. (This is also why certain batches, depending on their age, will make you fart like never before, especially if you follow them with another protein.) The traditional pulqueria until quite recently (and in many places still) had a villagelike aura: single-sex or with separate seating areas for men and women, and, in line with an old Spanish edict, swinging doors that hide nothing, early closing hours. It is said there were hundreds, perhaps a thousand pulquerias in Mexico City in the years after the Second World War. Today perhaps a tenth survive, their number boosted by new pulquerias inspired by a back-to-the-roots spirit and anthropological enthusiasm, as well as a leftwing, anti-NAFTA political inclination. A drink you can’t bottle or keep is the ultimate in buy-local anti-globalism.
Just an hour outside Mexico City, and 2000 feet below the peaks which lift it like a crown into a sky in which winters are barely possible, just shy of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos (the ‘city of eternal spring’ which the English writer Malcolm Lowry unforgettably recast as mescal-hell Quauhnahuac in Under the Volcano) is the valley of Tepoztlan. American songster Conor Oberst named his Mystic Valley Band for this place. The town is also famous for a recent uprising known as the Golf War, in which contention over a massive planned golf resort in 2007 escalated into bloodshed, leaving six dead (the golf course never materialized). But the significant archeological monument of the area is a pyramid built during the Aztec era on a plinth high above the town and dedicated to the rabbit gods of pulque. It’s easy to see why: the significant effects of drinking pulque are the vatic cast it lends to everything around, and a controlled bravery, a ‘bring it on’ attitude that would come in handy when facing imminent death. The Aztecs, who may have also relied on pulque as a source of nutrition for their chosen classes understandably restricted access to an elite, which included those doomed to sacrifice. Protein was at a premium in a society which lacked beans, rice, chickens, pigs, goats, the horse and the wheel: without refrigeration or access to ice, fish could only be brought in by overland foot relay from the coast, three days minimum. The cannibalism reserved for rituals might have also been a necessity, or the echo of a necessity. In a country where you can drink pulque on the street and bring liquor into water parks, it’s striking that pulque “and other alcoholic beverages” are not permitted on the archeological site. Then again it’s just as well, because the hour-long climb up the mountain underneath the pyramid, cantilevered on a sideslung pillar of rock, is not something you’d want to do full of pulque.
The view from the Yosemite-like height at the top of the pyramid is spectacular. The pyramid is the size of a Craftsman house from the Sears Catalog of 1910: you can sit up around the edge dangling your legs as you would off a suburban roof on a summer day, and watch the marmots that congregate there, accustomed to humans, play and sun themselves. After hiking hard on the way up, with the Japanese, plastic water bottles and digital cameras, it all seems arcane and comical. But back down the mountain, in the first, living-room pulqueria on the way back to town, sat among family portraits, drinking the café curado served to you by the owner’s oldest boy as he rises from the family meal in the kitchen just beyond, you take on the strength of four hundred rabbits: light and horny, fertile, happy under the blood-drenched sun.
Pulque is made from the sap of the maguey cactus, agave americanus, known in English as the Century plant – so common an invasive pest in Florida and Australia that it is subject to official extermination. It is known to survive even New York winters if kept dry, and one large specimen grows from under the wall surrounding the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The cactus, with thick leaves rising from the bottom to a diameter of up to ten feet, pushes up a central stem when it reaches maturity (after around twelve years) which thins as it rises into a flower some twenty feet high. This flower is ‘castrated’, and liquid begins to gather in a depression the size of a football, the aguamiel or honey-water, a clear liquid. Maguey sap ferments because of bacteria within the sap itself, but aguamiel is not notably alcoholic, and is naturally, unbelievably sweet.
There’s something compelling about it, the way the plant has discovered human beings as a means of its own survival. The evolutionary adaptation of plants to advance their propagation is no less astonishing than those of other species. Why the Norway rat, the cockroach, why dogs, why cats, why corn. Each has found its method of speaking to man or learning from him, following. And so the pigeon chooses cities and the starling fails. Once from the earplugs I used to put in at night to sleep through the morning noise (the garbage callers and the gas man and the tortilla vendor and the ironmonger and the church bells) I developed an infection from shower water trapped in there, or some pocket lint on the plugs themselves. In the dream I was turning into the plant, the infected side of my head green and succulent already. It knows us. All life works in a broken web like this, the butterfly flinching at the sound of thunder, turning everything in its universal clock towards its predeterminate end. Character is fate, free will a brave fiction: this the physicists know and will not admit.
The tiny (New England-like, in its pastoral arrangement of fields and deciduous trees, as well as its size on the map) state of Tlaxcala is shaped like a bowl both topographically and in outline, and lies an hour and a half to Mexico City’s northeast. It was the key to Cortes’ conquering of Tenochtitlan: the Tlaxcalans, bitter enemies of the Aztecs (having been captured and sacrificed to snarling gods in their tens of thousands) joined the Spanish expedition after it was forced from the city during the legendary ‘Night of Sorrow’. The bowl of Tlaxcala continues to pour pulque into the capital, but the flood has become a trickle.
I visited Tlaxcala for the first time in a minivan full of professional pulque lovers: Corina Salazar, author of Somos Hijos Del Maguey – ‘We Are Children of the Maguey’ – a history of the beverage published by the national arts agency Conaculta, threading a muñeca as we drove; Eduardo, one of the principals of La Risa (The Laugh, the city’s oldest pulqueria, in the historic center since 1906 and recently profiled in The New York Times); Jorge, boss of the charmingly basic Salon Casino in the scruffy Obrera district; and Gustavo, controlling partner in Pulquería Los Insurgentes, the flagship of Mexico’s postmodern pulque revival (four levels of a 120-year old Porfiriato mansion, each with a bar, certainly the biggest and probably the most lucrative pulqueria in Mexico).
About Pulquería Los Insurgentes: an anarchist punk and music promoter at the beginning of his twenties (and the start of the century), Gustavo founded El Under, the city’s mainstay Goth/Punk club, in the Centro, before moving it to Roma, just off Insurgentes. It lies on the edge of the Hipodromo Condesa neighborhood, an American speculator’s post-Depression venture on a disused racetrack, the sheer loveliness of which seventy years on has made it the center of the city’s expat population, and consequent late-stage gentrification and hipsterization to the very cupcake. Bustling with bus, auto and pedestrian traffic, Cuban dance halls, pirate and porn DVDs, internet cafes with private booths, sex shops without same, discount rug emporia, independent book and record stores, burger palaces and beer bars opened the day before yesterday,Insurgentes – until Gustavo’s new venture singlehandedly changed the street’s reputation – was where audacious and trendy start-up businesses nestled between decades-old standbys like Florsheims and Sandborns, only to stand empty, wither and die.
When Gustavo and his partner bought the license of a languishing gay bar in a rundown, gargantuan space, the general consensus was that they were fools. Pulque belonged in sawdust joints with a scrim of tacky, odiferous pulque spill on filth-blackened tile floors (an unfair stereotype, perhaps, but not entirely without foundation). Today Pulqueria Los Insurgentes is packed to capacity three nights a week, and hosts DJ nights for members of bands visiting the city, from Nortec Collective to Primal Scream, as well as rising rock acts like Juan Cirerol and Natalie Lefourcade. The street outside is named for the insurgents who sparked the revolution that no doubt commandeered this mansion from its original owner and – for a time – leveled the economic playing field, gave land to tenant farmers, nationalized the factories. Now this is an oligarchy again, and this pulqueria is a kind of fermenting tank for a new insurgent creative left: the doggedly independent, thirty-year old arts-and-politics journal Generación made this place its new editorial home as soon as it opened.
Just across the state border into Tlaxcala, a quick forty minutes outside the city, we pulled into a drive-up mini-mall complex of the kind so common to the American landscape and so rare in Mexico. All that has homogenized and isolated American life is a status symbol here: malls, twinned Burger King/Starbucks franchises (fruit of some arcane, new pact) are suddenly everywhere – there is a whole unruined country here to conquer. I was relieved when we stepped from the van and Eduardo led us out of the parking lot and across the adjacent street to an improvised restaurant on an abandoned railroad siding. “These are the best tripe tacos in Mexico,” he said.
My grossout threshold is fairly close to the surface. I’ve not yet sampled eyes, or pancita, the bellyfat that is also considered a ne plus ultra delicacy – or, until this moment, intestine. The salsa, Corina showed me, resting in a wide stone comal, was full of short, red worms she told me live inside the maguey. Maybe nobody else saw this as a test, but to me it was. The consistency of tripa, however, is nothing like what you’d imagine: my gag reflex never kicked in. The worms popped in my mouth like empty pill capsules, giving a crunchy texture to the slurry salsa verde. I had two. I wasn’t craving more tripe – though I could have eaten another – but pulque is best on an empty stomach, and I wanted to fly.
The highway climbed into greener, higher country. Zigzag down the Tepoztlan highway, the temperature spikes thirty degrees (Fahrenheit, still don’t ask me Celsius) – but north and eastward you climb out of the city only to rise. We passed through the town of Calpulalpan, the huddled streets ending in fields: Mexican towns usually don’t peter out into suburbs and their density often stops on a dime, in wilderness. In the green distance a massive metal building like a grain silo fattened out at the bottom towered over the open landscape – the Modelo brewery. Beer arrived in Mexico with advanced industrialization and transport, in the wake of the Second World War, and gained ground thanks to an inherent tendency Mexicans call ‘Malinchismo’ – imitation of La Malinche, the native woman who was Cortes’ lover and betrayed her people to the white conqueror. (How culpable Doña Marina really was is open to question, but she is five hundred years dead, and what lives on is the metaphor.) Before the 1960s brought a resurgence of pride in the country’s native traditions and blood, the cultural power of Western habits was absolute. People drank beer to make them less Mexican.
There is a canned pulque – of sorts – available in Mexico and the United States. I tried some a few years ago, at a Mexican grocery in Eugene, Oregon. It has a consistency and taste something like a Mountain Dew you might buy at a health food store. You have to drink an entire six-pack – I did – just to feel the slightest part of the dancing elation a couple swallows of fresh pulque affords. But you also taste the can itself, metals leaching into the drink, miles of Interstate traversed in the dark, the gasoline smell, the sadness of warehouses.
We pick up Alberto, a short, wiry, deeply tanned mestizo in his fifties, at his house, and he guides us onto a dirt road leading into the maguey fields. The layout feels like any small family farm, the kind that hardly exists in the U.S. anymore. Across the drive from the house, a low white stone shed serves as tinacal, where the tinas sit, jacuzzi-sized fibreglass tubs from which the fermenting aguamiel is tipped, one into another until it thickens and the alcohol content rises.
Dogs follow us out into the field, a regimented forest of plants some ten feet high and often as big around in the splayed reach of their wide, swordlike leaves. Immediately we come upon the broad-hatted tlachiquero, nearly engulfed in a tall plant, deftly turning a machete to carve back the inner leaves, capando or castrating the flower, which, if let bloom, would rise to the height of a two-storey house and spoil the plant for pulque-making. It is truly a castration, securing the plant in puberty like a medieval chanton, capturing that sweet high. Six months from now the tlachiquero will start making scratches on the insides of the leaves – like the four hundred rabbits in the legend clawing for the holy sweetness – and pull aguamiel from the ‘gate’, the bowl-like depression from which the flower has been uprooted.
Twice daily, at twelve-hour intervals (3:00 and 3:00 are the preferred times) the plant is relieved of about eight liters of aguamiel, for four to five months. Then it will die. The tlachiquero peels a translucent white sheet from the inside of a leaf from which he has removed the deadly-sharp tip, and it comes away with a satisfying, sheering, jet-plane sound. This plastic-like material is used to make bags for boiling mixiote, a spicy meat salad, giving it a cactusy tang. The broken tips separate with a clinging stretch of thin, gooey filaments I reach out to touch – but Corina stops me, saying the raw sap itches horribly.
The tlachiquero carves a number ‘9′ into the cactus for the month of the castration, and we move on to a plant that has collected aguamiel in the gate in the hours since the morning harvest, a light skin of dust and tiny fruit flies Alberto pushes aside to dip clear plastic Dixie cups into the slightly tannic, clear liquid, and we drink. It tastes clean, like mountain water sweetened so sharply it feels synthetic in its lightness and purity. There is no alcohol content yet, this is the pure drug. I’m already a little high from the blanco we’d been drinking in the van and so the raw stuff only levitates me, gently, gently. The buzz even of strong pulque on the edge of spoiling is so slight you could forget it was there if you had something important you had to do. Yet the dream is there, like a moving sidewalk, flat and humming. All you need do is step onto it.
The fermentation process begins with a semilla, or ‘seed’ – a small cloth bag containing a mixture of herbs known only to the tlachiquero, with a tincture of some long-ago batch of perfect pulque. Perhaps this is the origin of the ugly muñeca legend, that one ingredient is a tiny doll dipped into the mix containing human shit. This rumor – which may or may not, depending who you talk to, have some basis in the practices of the Aztec cult – was seized on by the prohibitionists and beer barons who fifty years ago dedicated themselves to the suppression of pulque. The new carriers of the tradition take offense at this old wives’ tale, and say it is a measure of the colossal unfairness and dishonesty of the brewers’ all-but-complete cultural victory. The semilla’s actual contents are a closely-guarded recipe: alongside the tinacal a small room branches off, lined with candles and icons, where the tlachiquero calls a blessing down on each batch. No one but he may enter.
This farm once belonged to the most famous of the Tlaxcalan pulque haciendas during the middle period, between the rural predominance it had enjoyed since the Aztecs, and its superseding by the beer conglomerates. Hacienda San Bartolome controlled all the land visible from its weather-skinned roof, all of this planted with agave, Alberto tells us, until the 1980s. The impresario who built this tiny empire was a man named Torres Adalid. The keystone of the hacienda reads 1888: by the time of the Revolution twenty years later, holdings like this were being turned over to the peasantry – not gently – and consolidated into communal farms called ejidos. Adalid fled to Cuba, where he died unceremoniously sometime in the 1940s leaning off a ladder to change a light bulb. (One of the main arterials crossing Delegación Benito Juarez, two blocks from my house, is named for him.)
Behind the vacant mansion rooms stand twin, high halls we look out onto from a mezzanine that is the only part of the complex to have been renovated – and hideously, with cheap tile and alcove lights, some local handyman’s terrible idea of a ski-lodge bathroom or Condesa nightspot, incongruous above the fields. Up a rusty spiral staircase to the roof, from which we can see all Adalid’s domain planted in golden wheat, the remaining trees and cacti. I put aside my plastic cup to tie my bootlace and the wind takes it, spilling pulque on the patio two floors down and Alberto makes a whooshing sound like I have committed some deep sacrilege.
We descend a staircase down the notch between the halls to the fortified payroom, locked and thus only visible through the door crack, wood-lined and redolent of cedar or southern hardwood. The smell is exactly like that of the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Puebla, a hour south of here, the first library in the New World: you pay a dollar to walk among the volumes, age-whitened vellum straight off the cows of five hundred years back, everything in Latin, tens of thousands of volumes counterpointing religious doctrine, meaningless now, angels wheeling on a pinhead in a forgotten struggle which time, Darwin, would erase, never to return. A disappeared eternity of thought and orphaned speculation. Gustavo rushed along the corridor in front of the payroom, riding the high, asking me in English, “What would you do here? I’d listen to Lord Byron all day and drink – I’ll be with you in a minute!” – and here he meant the dead – “What do you do? Fill it with ghosts – there’s nothing left!”
Riding in the car back through the city’s Venustiano Carranza delegación, distinctively replete with new Ikea-like short, bright lampposts, my guides began reciting their favorite pulqueria names, both extant and disappeared: the 120-year-old Hombres Sin Miedo (Men Without Fear) in La Viga; Lola’s Weddings; A Quiet Love; The Line of Fire; Trip to Japan. Hell Itself, Times to Come.
Recognition of pulque in the press these days is always a little patronizing. In the excellent 2003 documentary Pulque Song, focusing on the tlachiqueros around Bartolomeo del Monte and the patrons of the very old-fashioned (sex-segregated) pulqueria La Pirata in Escandón – several blocks south of Condesa in a last ungentrified freewayside corner, wedged in between the MBA neighborhood of Napoles with its streets named for American states – it once looked like the tradition was about to disappear entirely. The film ends in elegy, the tlachiqueros coming back from the fields at dawn, a remnant of old Mexico, disappearing never to return.
Here physics enters sociology: for every action an equal and opposite reaction. The new revival indeed encompasses some fancy-ass locales, serving the drink as a curated, precious sideline at boutique prices. La Bonita, an excellent Condesa restaurant, has some of the most expensive pulque in the city, at 100 pesos ($9) a liter – but their supply, seemingly little-sampled by their clientele – is impeccable. (The Greenwich Village restaurant Pulquería sells its curados in shot glasses. An entire liter goes for $75 US.) The only place I’ve found the tradition disrespected outright is in the Condesa nightspot El Azerrin – their pulque cocktails and expensive microservings a borderline offense, but offering canned product on occasion, as they are known to do, and calling it pulque, is downright reprehensible.
The pulquerias that have survived from the drink’s early-industrial heyday and stayed around long enough to catch the second wave are particularly compelling. Las Duellistas (1921) in the Centro’s western fringe, near the massive Mercado San Juan, is probably the city’s most popular traditional pulqueria. As at La Hija de los Apaches (which has moved twice since I had my first there, deeper and deeper into the stolen-car-retrofit no man’s land of Doctores) the clientele seems divided equally between young and punky and old and drunky. In the southern, semi-rural wet microclimate of Xochimilco, where boatmen ply ancient canals running between the reed islands the Aztecs grew from the lakebed and on which they farmed their produce, the legendary pulquerias El Templo de Diana and No Más No Llores (Don’t Cry Anymore) seem to exist in a pre-revival state. For all the tourism drawn by the canals, patrons here sometimes stare at this pale foreigner in literally openmouthed wonder. Down here this is a serious business, and ritual, and a long haul on public transit from hipsterland.
Occupying one high wall of Pulqueria Los Insurgentes is a massive painting, something of a fusion of magical- or sur-realism with cathedral ceilings, a work of devotion, a Pieta for pulque-lovers. Daniel Lezama’s ‘El Mayahuel’ hangs, Texas garage-door-wide, between the first and second levels, a realistically detailed scene of surreal fantasy: in the fields, a circle of prone, naked children surrounds a ritual font of two stone jars overflowing with liquid, an adult couple curled at the feet of a producing plant; in the gate stands a fat, naked Venus, pulque-white, wearing dime store rabbit ears. The children dip their bowls in the pulque. Their friends may be dead (Gustavo thinks so). The painting is striking and unforgettable and viewing its dark and joyous fatality one can feel the edge of the pulque dream.
At first my friends impressed on me pulque’s Mexicanidad – Mexican-ness – here was something ‘they’ couldn’t co-opt. Getting a liter to go? Poke a hole in the cap or it’ll explode by the time you get home! It spoils within 72 hours. Like certain yogurts, this is a ‘living culture’ – this phrase lending itself to its widest sense – though literally uncontainable, and expanding. There could be a health food market for minimal-alcohol-content, refrigerated week-old pulque: I’ve had a drink before midafternoon only a dozen times in my entire life, but the remnants of the garrafon I took home from Tlaxcala were for almost two weeks a delicious morning snack, more than anything like a swallow of kefir with only the very slightest extra, gentle lift. And the century plant doesn’t only grow here. You can plant it wherever there isn’t long duration of snow cover.
I imagine a United States with magueys in drought-scorched yards once covered with lawn; suburban teenagers learning from transient workers how to keep a batch’s flavorline, drinking it to keep off the drugs that make you want more and more, to drift calmly through the day, feet on the ground. Sooner or later the infinitesimal control of insurance and line item laws over the continent has to break: in a hundred years there might only be free zones where you can fall down a flight of stairs and have no one to blame, or pile into the back of a pickup truck and ride under the stars. They will serve (as Mexico does now) to remind us what freedom is like.
I imagine, in our lifetime, as we watch where speeding technological/social change takes us to an America that is both Mexican and what some antique (read white, Anglophone and Anglophile) American would find as unclassifiably foreign as that slightly English-accented, East Coast-centered Radio Age America of nearly a century ago is to us now. A country that in its new severe weather and unguessable shortages will rediscover the value of quietude and work that is small and local. The cities, I believe, will also endure, grand and crowded yet set on the same principle. The neighbor will know herbs and trade for GMO-free corn. Far fewer people will have anything that looks like a job as we think of it now, and everyone will have to work: no viral apocalypse or zombie plague will arrive to simplify a single fucking thing.
As pulque and the practices it recalls return to stand alongside other revived traditions at the cultural center of an industrializing, freeway-girding Mexico, the century plant will become a half-generation heirloom planted at a child’s birth, with placenta for its embalming seed, to give the liquid to the child when s/he comes of age. In arroyo-sides and desert gardens, Hollywood backyards, Arizona parking strips, Texas malls, curated through prairie winters, the song of the earth will hum into a continental surface symphony. We have isolated, dried, regimented, addicted, displaced, disassociated, corporate-medicated, long enough. The great unplugging will never be universal, but will underlay all the future brings. Pulque is with us to stay.