Feb 16, 2021

Nectar of the Rabbit Gods


Homer Casteel

Most Americans are familiar with tequila, either from war-time whisky rationing or from romantic stories laid in Mexico.

Many have heard vaguely of mescal, about which Texans warn that, after three drinks, if you reach up and find something cold, clammy and putty-like in front of  your face—it’s your face. Some knowledgeable writers even manage to bring in off-beat drinks like habanero and aguardiente, but nobody ever mentions pulque. This seems to be downright unneighborly, since pulque (“pronounced pullkey”) is the closest thing to a typical Mexican drink. It also reflects an unaccountable blindness to romantic possibilities, because pulque has almost everything.

From the viewpoint of the gourmet it has an unbelievably wonderful flavor, an appealing texture, and a highly distinctive odor exceeded only by Limburger cheese. Pulque reeks of culture, too. It was a ritual drink for Indian nobles in pre-Spanish times, and folklore even claims that a princess discovered it. From a health standpoint, it is loaded with vitamins, as a couple of surprised sociological teams found out some years ago. It is an excellent cheap substitute for milk, and for centuries has been fed to children who wax fat drinking it, and grow up straight-legged and strong-toothed, if a little cockeyed.

A taste for pulque must be cultivated like that for caviar, beer or kidney pie. If an unwary American had the nerve to run the gantlet of suspicious stares that would meet him in a pulqueria, and had the Spanish to order a drink, the first swallow of pulque would send him off to the nearest doctor, sure that he’d been subtly poisoned. It would really be much better if the novice found a pulque drinking acquaintance in whom he had a great deal of confidence, and hwo would (figuratively) hold his hand during the first dubious sips and later hold his head.

Pulque is a kind of beer made from the sap of the maguey cactus, which is a bigger cousin of our century plant. It has such a basic flavor that it is hard to describe, but it can be more or less bracketed as having a sweetish, slightly acid taste and a pungent, mashy odor similar to that of salt rising bread. It is a thick, white, viscous liquid that has a tendency to rope when poured. This adds an elegance to its serving, because it must be poured with a peculiar swooping motion that requires the great coordination and quick eye to be found in our country only among one-handed servers of Italian spaghetti and yo-yo experts.

Pulque can be drunk straight, or “cured” with an almost endless variety of fruit and vegetable juices ranging the taste and color spectrum from watermelon to celery. The purist, however, considers curing pulque to be an unpardonable sin—on a par with putting Napoleon brandy into an Alexander. While a man might conceivably stoop to sampling banana pulque at home with his family, or even be coaxed into drinking a quart or so of pineapple pulque on a picnic with the neighbors, he’d be regarded as a very unsavory individual indeed—practically an American—if he drank it any way but “white” in the pulquerias.

The magueys that yield the best sap grow on high, arid ground. According to the Mexicans, the higher the mountain the better the pulque. The plant takes about ten years to mature to the stage where the juice is suitable for use. Just before the central shoot that would bear the bloom begins to grow, a worker known as a tlachiquero comes along, trims out the central leaves and pierces the heart of the maguey with his machete. Some two months later he returns and scrapes out a bowl in the heart where the sap can collect. Maguey sap is called “honey water” and is as sweet as its name implies, and slightly intoxicating. On the high ground around the valley of Mexico there are tremendous haciendas that grow nothing but magueys, and each tlachiquero is responsible for miles of plants which he must visit twice daily to remove the juice. It is not a particularly hard job, and the tedium of the rounds is helped considerably by the fact that he can inhale enough honey water during the day to keep himself in a pleasant state of befuddlement. It is not at all rare to see a white-suited tlachiquero wobbling along between the towering spiny rows of dark green magueys smiling a little and talking to himself.

Most Americans are familiar with tequila, either from war-time whisky rationing or from romantic stories laid in Mexico.

A big maguey will yield a quart or so of juice a day over a period of about six months. The collector sucks the juice out of the heart with a long gourd which works on the principle of a doctor’s pipette (a glass tube used to transfer and measure fluids) and transfers it to a pigskin that he carries on his back by means of a head-strap. The collection from each round is taken back to the tinical, or brewery, where it is dumped into the fermenting vats.

There is much ritual and mysticism connected with the brewing of pulque. Some of it has Christian overtones, but most of it can be traced back to long before the Spanish conquest. Somewhere around the vats there will always be a little shrine dedicated to a patron saint and decorated with fresh flowers, crepe paper and stray bits of fancy lace. The head brewer ranks high in hacienda society, and his office has vague, priestly connotations. It is an hereditary job; some lines of tinicaleros go back to the days of the old Toltec kings. The making of the pulque seed, which is the fermenting agent, is a carefully guarded secret handed down from father to son along with the office. The seed is brewed in a small vat in one corner of the tinical. When it is ready, a little cross is put up over the main entrance and the men who have been loafing around outside come in and stand around the vats with their hats in their hands and their heads bowed as the brewer pours the seed into the fresh honey water. Nowadays, the vats are usually made of wood, but in some of the remoter sections they are still made of cowhide stretched over wooden frames.

Tinicals are community centers on the haciendas, and there is always a bunch of slightly tipsy loafers hanging around, singing and cadging drinks, waiting for an unwary stranger to appear. Custom dictates that he must down a quart without stopping, or buy a round for everybody.

The best pulque is found close to the maguey plantations. Pulque doesn’t travel well as heat and motion speed up its rate of fermentation. Probably more important, city bartenders are prone to dilute it to increase their profit margin. Nevertheless there are many good pulquerias in Mexico City which are not at all difficult to locate, since they appeal to all the sense.

In the first place they have eye-popping names. It is possible for example to meet a friend at the Drunk Monkey, move on after a couple of snorts to the Toss Off Another, and spend the shank of the evening at Nero’s Belch. There is a wryness and irony in other names—The Illiterate Sages, Let’s See What Happens, Your Office, The Barbarians of the North. And the spirit of competition has made some inroads. On one rather long street there are three bars named The Phoenix, The Phoenix Reborn, and The Ultimate Phoenix, but the idealist will be happy to know that still farther along the street another bar is named, I Am Laughing.

For the benefit of those who can’t read Spanish, many bars illustrate their titles with murals, some of which are folk-art masterpieces. All pulquerias have color schemes that are impossible to ignore.

For the sake of the color-blind, crepe paper flags are flown over the street in front when a new shipment of pulque arrives. These flags are not hung out as idle decoration or to announce a fresh stock, though they serve that purpose. Their real reason is to scare away the evil spirits who might enter and spoil the pulque before its time. Since it is in a constant state of fermentation, continuing to work even as it is being drunk, only the most arrant novice ever takes the last swallow in his glass. The proper procedure is to pour the dregs out on the floor, which is not only practical but gives the place a highly characteristic smell toward the end of the day. Pulque was, and is, a ritual Indian drink, and when you splash your last sip out on the ground you are said to be toasting Xochitl, the Toltec princess who is supposed to have discovered it.

In an historical way she really started something.

The drink proved so popular that it may have had a lot to do with the fall of the Toltec empire. The fabulous race that raised the pyramids at Teotihuacan, which are so big that they make the Egyptian pyramids look like ambitious anthills, took to the stuff with a vengeance. Although the Toltecs didn’t seem to mind their old men getting drunk (perhaps because it would keep them out of the way) somebody had to keep up the civic monuments, and the fact that their young men were literally going to pot called for drastic measures. Things got so bad that death was made the penalty for drunkenness. There seems to be a pointed social footnote in that poor young men were beaten to death as public examples while some of the richer families were allowed to execute their errant members privately.

People who are rather smug in the belief that the statistical index is a modern innovation will probably be disillusioned to know that the Aztecs figured out a scale for drunkenness that was light years ahead of our own nebulous terminology.

There was a lady goddess named Mayauel who represented the maguey plant, and it seems she had borne 400 sons, all of whom turned out to be rabbits. The old manuscripts don’t say whether she was surprised or not, or whether there was any vindictiveness in the fact that she dedicated them all to pulque, but she did. Subsequently, the rabbit became the symbol of drunkenness in the Aztec pantheon. Later, in a bureaucratic master-stroke, the priests set up a scale coupling each phase of drunkenness with a certain son. Four-hundred-rabbit meant absolute and unequivocal drunkenness, and the process worked on down the scale. Thus, instead of someone telling you that he was tight the night before, he’d tell you that he had pulled a three-hundred-rabbit, and you’d know pretty graphically that he was stiff.

Pulque runs about 6 percent alcohol, which makes it just about as strong as beer, but it has a decidedly unbeery kick. A hundred-rabbit man walks as if he were directing someone else’s legs over streets made of old chewing gum.

Many years ago pulquerias were the meeting places of intellectuals and artists and other argumentative types, but today most pulquerias are frequented by rather aloof cliques of workmen. The ceiling will be decorated with faded crepe paper flags interspersed with tired flypaper streamers. The floor will be covered with sawdust so the many toasts to Xochitil won’t make the footing dangerous. The plaster or adobe walls will have some pin-up girls, advertisements for various headache powders, some no-credit signs, and a few desultory flies. For furnishings, there will be a pitted pine table and a couple of benches stained with analine dyes in unbelievable colors. In one corner there will be a short bar whose composition stone top will be decorated with glass marks that the rag swipes have missed and shakers of pulverized salt. No matter what time of day you go in, there will be a group sitting around the table playing dominoes or arguing in soft voices about Sunday’s bullfight, or how the last game of beisbol went for the Yanquis de Nueva York. The surprising thing about pulquerias during the day is the quietness of the drinkers. Things start picking up about 5 o’clock when the workers start drifting in, but in the early afternoon you can walk down streets and clearly hear the clack of dominoes above the soft, plaintive wail of some Mexican hillbilly on the juke box.

The drinkers usually share a gallon barrel (which is slightly cheaper than buying by the glass) determining who pays with a domino game or by tossing coins at a circle drawn on the table. Sometimes, when real experts are tossing against each other, the pulqueria proves too small, and the teams back out into the street and toss through the open door. Most pulqueria tables are as pitted as the moon’s face with old abandoned circles that have gotten too deep to use. Some bars try to save their tables by installing marked tiles, but the expert sneers at these because the coins won’t stick as well.

On Saturday afternoons in the older residential sections alfresco family parties are held in the street outside the pulqueria.

On Saturday afternoons in the older residential sections alfresco family parties are held in the street outside the pulqueria. Little groups squat around the family pitcher, guitars appear here and there, quartets are organized, the pulqueria juke box is turned up full volume, and kids are given firecrackers to warn passing motorists and other evil spirits they had better detour.

Pulque has lost a bit in popularity since the Europeans introduced a variety of liquors, but all classes still drink and like it. Because it was associated with the conquered Indian cultures it was looked down on during the colonial period, and still bears a little of this stigma, but the only reason to consider it a poor man’s drink is its low price, which ranges around 10 cents a gallon. No fiesta deserving the name is complete without barrels of it served in earthenware urns with hooks on the outside to support drinking mugs, and which are decorated with weirdly stylized archaic patters. The rabbit is still a common design, and flowers are extensively used. (Xochitl, the discoverer’s name, translates as flower.)

Pulque is still used extensively at ceremonies. On the day of the crosses, for instance, which is the special day of the carpenters, all buildings in the process of construction are decorated with three crosses, the main one of which must be taken to church and blessed – preferably by a virgin. When she returns to the building her cross is raised over the main door and flanked with two smaller ones. Then the foreman hands her a jug of pulque form which she drinks and passes (with proper regard for protocol) down the ranks until every workman on the job has taken a sip. For luck against such things as earthquakes, faulty construction, and accidents, there must be enough left to splash on the door sill. If the job is big enough to warrant such extravagance, the jug is broken.

Pulquerias are closed on Sundays. This doesn’t seem to spring as much from puritanism as from an attempt by the authorities to cut down on Monday absenteeism. (Mexicans get their saint’s days off, and you hear frequent mention of San Lunes – Saint Monday.) The law is not a very effective one. Business is transferred to toritos – little bulls – which are possibly so called because one spends all afternoon dodging the police. Since pulque is hard to keep, not only because of its rapid fermentation but because of its drinkability, the toritos do a roaring business. After all, Sunday doesn’t seem right unless a man has a wicker jug full of orange pulque to go with his barbecued goat. And when he’s stuffed and stretches out for his afternoon siesta, it’s nice to know he’ll have a little of the nectar of the rabbit gods around when he wakes up.