20 April 2005

Pulque tradition fades in Mexico City

Story by : David Agren

A toothless waiter, wearing a blue puma T-shirt, in La Elegancia, a pulqueria in Mexico City's historic center, dropped a large glass containing a smelly, milky, alcoholic liquid on the rustic wooden table, charging 20 pesos. It smelled like an armpit, tasted astringent -- even with the peanut flavouring mixed in - and had a texture like spit. An old-timer standing at the bar dipped his fingers into his drink, pulling out long strands of gooey liquid, akin to egg whites.

Pulque, a 2,000-year-old beverage made from fermented maguey (a type of cactus) juice, once fueled the Aztec elites. The governing classes strictly forbade commoners from drinking it, punishing offenders with cruel beatings. Preferring stronger drinks, the conquering Spanish introduced distilling methods, producing mezcal —- and later tequila —- from the maguey plant.

Despite its noble origins, pulque has been steadily falling in popularity. More than 1,000 watering holes, known as pulquerias, blanked Mexico City a century ago. Large haciendas sent fresh pulque by the trainload from the central Mexican states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Morelos into the capital, creating a pulque aristocracy. Nowadays less than 100 pulquerias remain, catering to mostly older crowds in rather seedy settings. Freshly harvested agua miel (honey water), the non-fermented version of pulque, is still fairly common in rural communities.

"Not many people drink pulque anymore," said Juan Vaca (the name he gave), a somewhat loaded patron in La Elegancia, wearing a Don Quixote T-shirt and Superman cap, who had trouble staying coherent with his answers.

"It was a tradition before."

Young Mexicans have moved on to other alcoholic drinks like beer, wine and tequila. Besides its offensive taste, rumors of using a sack full of human feces to speed up the fermentation process also dampened pulque's appeal. For many, it has simply become a novelty beverage.

"I hate pulque," said Juancho Nuñez, 29, a deejay who spins records in Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, adding some of his friends occasionally imbibe in rundown establishments like La Elegancia to be "cool.

"The style in Mexico is to be naco (tacky or lacking class)."

Despite its name, La Elegancia is anything but classy, selling only pulque trucked in daily from nearby Tlaxcala state.

A stench, reminiscent of an old hockey bag, wafts into the street. Behind a pair of swinging doors -- the kind from a western movie -- inebriated men standing by the bar call out a friendly, if not alcohol-induced, welcome. The bartender ladles glasses of pulque out of white barrels. Inside, shoes stick to the floor. A shrine to the Virgin Mary sits directly across from the bar. Pancho Villa and Bob Marley pictures cover the dated off-white tiled walls. A corner jukebox cranks out banda music and romantic ballads. A steel trough-style urinal runs along the side wall, where customers relieve themselves in plain sight of their fellow drinkers.

La Elegancia sells natural pulque for a mere eight pesos per glass. Equally viscous, but somewhat more palatable flavours include pineapple, tomato, oat, nut and peanut.
Most pulquerias open early in the day. By Noon, ten tipplers held court in La Elegancia, paying no attention to the smelly atmosphere. Others, however, popped in for a quick pick-me-up.

Jesus Garcia, a rail-thin employee at a taco stand downwind from the stench, loads up on pulque three times daily.

"It's refreshing," he said, finishing the final gulp, his jaw shaking the entire time.

A supposedly healthful drink, legend has it pulque boosts libido and is beneficial for nursing mothers.

"Pulque is much better than Viagra," said Celia Peña, a vendor selling kites in the Zocolo district with her husband Marcos, who flashed a shy grin.

"Pulque is natural. Viagra is a chemical."

She lamented though that the pulquerias sell such an awful product, saying homemade pulque from her pueblo in the State of Mexico tastes so much better.

With the alcohol content ranging from two to eight percent, it takes some serious drinking to get a good pulque buzz.

"It's not like tequila," said Jorge Menchaca, a Mexico City cab driver, who grew up drinking pulque.

"But if you drink a liter of it, you can't feel your legs."

Published in the Ottawa Citizen.

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