Demystifying the Maguey

Demystifying the Maguey

It wouldn’t be an inac­cu­rate claim to say that mez­cal is expe­ri­enc­ing a sort of renais­sance right now. In fact, the spir­it has real­ly put Oax­a­ca on the map as of late. Mez­calaphil­ia has tak­en hold of the gringo heart and pal­let, and this can be seen on the rural palen­ques as a new colo­nial wave of whites have arrived in recent years to plun­der the rich­es of the mod­est yet prac­ti­cal and essen­tial maguey. Mez­cal is a dis­tilled spir­it made from the heart of the maguey plant (a species of agave). When har­vest­ed the hearts of the maguey, or piña, are cooked or roast­ed for sev­er­al days in an earth­en oven. The hearts are then mashed to extract the liq­uids to be fer­ment­ed. After the fer­men­ta­tion peri­od mez­cal is twice dis­tilled. The results of the process vary geo­graph­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. Mez­cal is region­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly influ­enced. This means that mez­cal is an extreme­ly diverse spir­it when it comes to fla­vor.

A once mod­est pro­duc­tion for con­sump­tion mez­cal has sky­rock­et­ed and in recent years, with its expor­ta­tion north­ward and oth­er­wise, has become a cham­pi­oned spir­it, per­haps, con­tro­ver­sial as it might be for me to say over over­tak­ing tequi­la as the drink of pref­er­ence of Mex­i­can orig­in. Yes, mez­cal is deli­cious. But I am not here to tell you about mez­cal, I am hear to tell you about the mag­nif­i­cent maguey of which mez­cal is derived from.

Mez­cal is one of many byprod­ucts of the maguey. To real­ly under­stand the impor­tance of this plant to Oax­a­ca and Mex­i­co it is nec­es­sary to gaze into the crys­tal ball of his­to­ry at the pre­his­pan­ic peri­od. Archae­ol­o­gists believe that the maguey was an extreme­ly impor­tant resource dur­ing the pre­his­pan­ic peri­od. This is espe­cial­ly the case due to the fact corn, the Mesoamer­i­can dietary sta­ple, had yet to be ful­ly domes­ti­cat­ed.  This meant that maguey was an invalu­able food source, espe­cial­ly so in the dri­er cli­mates of the Oax­a­can val­ley. It has been dis­cov­ered that maguey was used as a dietary sta­ple but also as an impor­tant mate­ri­al for build­ing and tex­tiles.

The strong fibers of the miguey have been used to make cloth, thread, twine and rope, and the spines made into needles for sewing. The flesh was and is used as a food source as well as the delec­table flow­ers. The sap was and is used as a fresh (aguamiel) and fer­ment­ed drink (pulque); how­ev­er, in the pre­his­pan­ic peri­od pulque was typ­i­cal­ly reserved for cer­tain class­es of cit­i­zens to be con­sumed dur­ing rit­u­als or fes­ti­vals. Cer­tain byprod­ucts of the liq­uid con­sump­tion and fer­men­ta­tion were like­ly used for con­struc­tion pur­pos­es. Fur­the­more, the sap pro­duc­tion of a mature maguey can last for sev­er­al months and after a cer­tain peri­od of time it can dry itself out mak­ing the plant dry and leath­ery. Leaves could be used as fuel or for con­struc­tion peri­ods, and it is pos­si­ble that the larg­er thick­er stems were used as posts for cer­tain struc­tures.

More than its tac­til­i­ty, maguey was and is also a sacred plant. It is looked over by its god­dess May­huel who is best known as the the godess of maguey fer­til­i­ty. It is believed that the first maguey is derived from Mayhuel’s body which was torn to pieces and buried by a venge­ful god Quet­zal­coatl. Pulque was an impor­tant rit­u­al­is­tic drink dur­ing many cer­e­monies, and the spines of the plant were even used by priests and upper-class cit­i­zens for sac­ri­fice and autosac­ri­fice. Con­tem­po­rary shaman­ic uses of the maguey include the indul­gence and result­ing cathar­sis of mez­cal con­sump­tion dur­ing cer­e­monies includ­ing prayer, rit­u­al and dance. There are many mytholo­gies and sto­ries sur­round­ing the pant and they add impor­tance to its con­tem­po­rary uses. The plant has been used to treat ill­ness­es rang­ing from syphilis to a sore throat. It has antibac­te­ri­al prop­er­ties which aid in gas­troin­testi­nal prob­lems or bac­te­ri­al infec­tions.

Before mov­ing to Oax­a­ca I knew lit­tle about the maguey. Like many before me I had mis­tak­en it for an aloe plant or a cac­tus, but it isn’t relat­ed to either. It is a beau­ti­ful plant and that is as much as I knew. I was once told that the maguey flow­er will only bloom once in the plants life­time and after it opens itself up to repro­duc­tion it will die. This is at once tremen­dous­ly sad­den­ing and at the same time so beau­ti­ful. After mov­ing here it wasn’t long before I had indulged on the mul­ti­tude of con­sum­able delec­table the plant pro­duces.

Flor de Maguey is like­ly one of the more rare and deli­cious dish­es pro­duced from the plant. The flow­er petals are cooked down into a toma­to broth or stew that envelops itself in a ten­der sweet­ness and pos­sess a ten­der aro­mat­ic qual­i­ty that one might only rec­og­nize while on a palen­que in the coun­tryside. Anoth­er favorite dish of mine is a sim­ple bar­ba­coa. This dish of ground cooked mut­ton uti­lizes the large leaves of the maguey which are wrapped around the meat and organs of a sheep and cooked under the earth allow­ing the meat to stew into a del­i­cate mess of car­niv­o­rous delight. Anoth­er del­i­ca­cy is a bypro­duct of the plant is the par­a­sitic chinicuil or mez­cal worm. This worm accom­pa­nied by the gusano (a red worm also found in the maguey) can be dried and salt­ed for con­sump­tion, ground into salt for rim­ming cock­tails, and pow­dered to be con­sumed with mez­cal and a wedge of orange. You may also find a worm or lar­va at the bot­tom of a bot­tle of smokey cheap mez­cal. Of course one can­not for­get the refresh­ing qual­i­ties of aguamiel which can be enjoyed fresh or fer­ment­ed into a deliri­ous­ly sweet, sour and some­times gooey con­coc­tion of pulque. And if you, like many, can’t seem to find a palate for pulque, it is often mixed with straw­ber­ries, guayabe, or pineap­ple to enhance the sweet­ness and dis­tract you from its nat­u­ral­ly funky poten­tial.

While maguey has come to be wide­ly known for mez­cal pro­duc­tion, we can see that the plant is extreme­ly ver­sa­tile. With its rise in pop­u­lar­i­ty one can only hope that it does not suf­fer the same fate as tequi­la with increas­ing com­mer­cial­iza­tion and the prod­ucts com­mod­fi­ca­tion the risk remains that the pro­duct will increas­ing­ly become more homog­e­nized and lose out on what makes it spe­cial: its almost lim­it­less feel­ing vari­ety. Fur­ther­more, increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of mez­cal will increase the pres­sure on its resource, the maguey. The maguey is so inte­gral to Oax­a­ca and Mex­i­co as a resource, a sacred sym­bol, and as a pro­duct for com­mu­nal sub­sis­tence that we need to be weary of its exploita­tion in the mez­cal agribusi­ness. My hope is to see the con­tin­u­al tra­di­tion­al prac­tices of maguey use, high­light­ed by small batch pro­duc­tion of mez­cal with less empha­sis on export and more empha­sis on local­iz­ing economies. Maguey in pre­his­pan­ic times was a type of cap­i­tal for trade, and it kept the Oax­a­can val­ley rich in cul­ture and pro­mot­ed healthy com­merce. There are many who will echo this when I say, do not for­get the her­itage of the mighty maguey and its cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance born of neces­si­ty and the plants ver­sa­til­i­ty. Keep May­huel safe from greed and plun­der.