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Límulus

Another living fossil: Pulque

Text by: Mar Gámiz

Photographs and videos: Ulises Fierro

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Much has been written on the low consumption of pulque as opposed to the thousands of arrobas that entered the capital during the Colony and the volume of pulque that was drank during the Porfirian times. It is also true that the quality of the pulque produced today is not the same as before, much less the one the Aztec priests or female soldiers, the adelitas, tried. But it is true that after several years of loosing prestige, a process of revaluation of the pulque is taking place; the need for certain sectors of the population to take over national practices dictated by the indigenous Mexican roots and natural resources.

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Notwithstanding the decline suffered by the haciendas that manufacture pulque and the notable reduction of pulquerías (taverns that specialize in serving pulque) on Mexican territory, this beverage still refreshes and nourishes, especially the inhabitants of the central highlands where the maguey of the pulque has been cultivated for many years. Ancestrally linked to a culture of exploitation, the maguey was named the “tree of wonders” by José de Acosta (16th century Spanish chronicler): from this plant we have obtained sharp points to carry out self sacrifices in pre Hispanic times, to the famous mixiote (traditional pit-barbecued meat dish from Central Mexico); namely, the fabric from the maguey’s main rib, used to wrap meat and cover minor injuries.  Maguey has also been used as material for construction for farmer households, as fodder for animals, as a source of yarns to make clothes, cords and ropes, besides, of course, as food and drink.

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“The drool of the gods,” “water from the green bushes,” “divine honey,” “green cow milk” and “white face” are a few of the names that pulque is known for. Pre Hispanic peoples called it “octli” in náhuatl and “seí” in otomi language. In the Dictionary of náhuatl in Mexican Spanish (Diccionario del náhuatl en el español mexicano) coordinated by Carlos Montemayor, the word “pulque” is considered a controversial denomination of náhuatl because the various scholars that speak of it do not agree on the reasons for the introduction of the participle “poliuhquil,” which means “broken” and is ultimately where “pulque” came from. These range from the rapid fermentation of the beverage, to a possible disdain from the Spanish towards it. Agreeing on its origin was not necessary for the undeniable success of the word.

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Pulque is the fermented beverage of the maguey juice. To extract this juice, a profound knowledge of the plant’s life is necessary because, in order to scrape it, one needs to “castrate” it or cut the heart at the exact point of maturity of the maguey (it has a life span of twenty to thirty years). If it is not cut, the maguey will produce a long stem or “quiote,” bloom and die. Two master talchiqueros (those in charge of scraping the maguey) explain how they obtain the juice here:

(To activate the English subtitles on the videos, click on CC. Subtitling by Camila Teicher)

¿What happens after scraping?

(To activate the English subtitles on the videos, click on CC. Translation by Camila Teicher.)

The production process of the pulque is very delicate and at the same time, it is an inherited know-how from generation to generation. Pulque demands an artisanal production, not industrial, as well as its almost immediate consumption. Pulque manufacturing haciendas have lost a great deal of work and status. On the other hand, pulque has been stigmatized as a “dirty and low class” beverage. However, the techniques used to produce, distribute and commercialize it shaped a five hundred year-old cultural framework that has rescued the beverage today from its expected extinction.

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And here is where we go back to where we started. Pulque is being revalued, either because there are families that never stopped consuming it, or because there have been people who have studied its history, benefits and cultural importance.

(To activate the English subtitles on the videos, click on CC. Translation by Camila Teicher.)

As can be noted, pulque has faced so many predators that we can relate him to the limulus polyphemus and place it in the “living fossil” category. Which is why we are pleased to dedicate this space to such a resistant and unique beverage. The videos and photographs inserted in this article belong to a recent documentary produced by Ulises Fierro, La Ruta del Pulque, la baba de los dioses (The Pulque Trail, the drool of the gods).

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